Students 'get their voices heard' in the state Capitol
Until the morning of January 27, Lorna Sailiai had never stepped onto the marble floor beneath the ornate dome of the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. She had never spoken to an elected official.
But for several hours that day, Lorna and five other teenagers from the Seattle area engaged state legislators and their aides. They lobbied for passage of a bill to close the "educational opportunity gap," especially for Pacific Islander students.
The students, part of an organization of Pacific Islanders called Our Future Matters, joined nearly 100 youth from around the state at the ninth-annual Legislative Youth Action Day in Olympia.
Our Future Matters and Teens for Tukwila, another local group, had learned advocacy skills through participating in World Vision's Youth Empowerment Program (YEP).
"I never thought that I'd come to the Capitol for any reason," says Lorna, 17. "It makes me realize [that teens can have an impact on public officials] on a much bigger scale. Just the fact they're willing to hear us has a big impact on us. I never thought this opportunity existed."
Pulemau Savusa made a quick trip home to Washington from Arizona State University, where she is a freshman, to join Our Future Matters in lobbying legislators for the day.
"It's a really good experience for kids to get their voices heard at a high level," says Pulemau, 19, who as a high school student had twice participated in the YEP national summit in Washington, D.C. "I was able to develop my skills through YEP."
She and Lorna testified at a state House Education Committee hearing on a bill that seeks to collect student discipline data in a new way. They believe the bill would address the disproportionate discipline of Pacific Islander students, which may contribute to their low graduation rates in Washington.
By being combined with students of Asian descent in state education statistics, Pacific Islander students "fall through the cracks," Pulemau told the committee. "There is no way to help these students who are failing if we have no clue they are failing to begin with."
Earlier that day, members of Our Future Matters and Teens for Tukwila met with a string of legislators and aides to introduce themselves and their causes.
Teens for Tukwila huddled in the hallway with Rep. Zack Hudgins, whose district is just south of Seattle, and peppered him questions about bill creation, state budgets, minimum wage, and health insurance.
"How am I doing—did I pass?" Hudgins quipped after the last question. He also reminded the teens that they were taxpayers because of the state sales tax, so government action is "affecting you and what you do. I'm glad you're down here."
Our Future Matters members divided up speaking roles in their meetings with lawmakers as they presented challenges facing Pacific Islander students.
Lorna takes advanced courses in high school and dreams of studying at Stanford University—even though she says a teacher has told some Pacific Islander students that they should drop out because they were "not going to amount to anything."
Other teens talked about the lack of Pacific Islander teachers, and the high suspension rates and low graduation rates of the ethnic group's students.
An aide to house Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon said the representative "doesn't know what it's like [to encounter such hurdles], so it's important" that the students shared their stories.
This year's Legislative Youth Action Day was the second involving World Vision. Other partners in the event include the Washington State Legislature, the state Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the Legislative Youth Advisory Committee.
The day before students met with legislators, participants attended several workshops, including one on advocacy taught by Lina Thompson, national director of training and capacity development for World Vision's U.S. Programs. Thompson's sister, Pat, leads Our Future Matters.
Even after that training, Pulemau nervously worried that the youngest members of her group might not be willing to lobby lawmakers. To her pleasant surprise, "they were all jumping at the speaking parts," she says.
Aisake Makasini, 14, one of the youngest participants, told legislators that "even though we may come from different islands, celebrate different cultures, and speak different languages, what is most important to all of us and what we all value is respect, family, and education."
An aide to house Rep. Eric Pettigrew commended Our Future Matters: "There are a lot of young people who are not as well-spoken as you. It'll pay off. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise."
For Pulemau, such moments were heartening.
"It's really working," she says. "We're actually making a difference."