Students learn art of influencing policy-makers

Putting spring break to good use, Justice Sky of Homer and Mina Gherman of Anchor Point were among 20 youth from around the state to attend the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action’s 2013 Civics and Conservation Summit in Juneau.  

This is Sky’s fourth year to participate in the event and Gherman’s first time to serve as a youth delegate.

The summit is a week of lessons on speaking with the media, communicating with elected officials, understanding how legislation is read and learning how to impact the decisions of leaders. Included are sessions on resolution processes, environmental justice and exploring the sources of power and influence. The training wraps up with youth-led visits to legislators for the purpose of discussing environmental concerns and interests.

“The first time I went I was a student delegate, but each time I’ve come, I’ve been a peer trainer,” said Sky, who traveled to the state’s capital city March 10 to help prepare for the summit. “It’s a collaborative effort. I helped with how to write letters to the editor, how to go through meeting with a legislator. “

The delegates select specific pieces of legislation to follow and explore what it does and why it’s important. 

Gherman, who is passionate about educating her peers and others about the harmful additives in foods, said being a youth delegate was “a great opportunity for me to learn how to influence my community and talk to people better and learn how to make change.”

Valuable lessons learned for Gherman include being a better communicator.

“Rather than giving statistics and facts, what really gets people to change is talking about common values to establish trust,” said Gherman. “Once they see that your issue is valuable to them, then they are more willing to listen to the whole story. I never thought about that before, but it opened me up to that point of view.”

The students’ opportunity to practice what they’d learned came when they divided into groups and met with their local legislators. Sky and Gherman were among those meeting with Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. The topic of conversation was House Bill 96, relating to chemicals of concern and chemicals in children’s products, a topic Gherman said parallels her food concerns.

“I know I did well because I wasn’t too nervous, I told him about what I value and it seemed like he supported that and I was happy,” said Gherman. “He’s in the Senate, but he said he’d talk to Rep. (Kurt) Olson, chair of committee it was referred to.”

Micciche had praise for the delegates.

“I was in a very busy session and both Mina and Justice were very bright spots in my work here and I think that’s what it’s all about,” said Micciche, adding that he supports Alaskans producing their own food. “We used to produce 50 percent of our own food and now we produce five percent. The Micciches buy food produced as close to the front door as possible.”  

He said Gherman “was constructively assertive and it caused me to research HB 96. It has some very important things in it. Alaskans should be aware of the chemicals in toys they’re purchasing for their children.”

Following meetings with legislators, the delegates prepared and served on the capitol steps a lunch featuring sockeye salmon to which legislators were invited. During the lunch, the delegates presented 2013 AYEA “Legislator of the Year” awards to Reps. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, Jonathan Kreiss-Thomkins, D-Southeast, and Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, and Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, in recognition of supporting Alaska’s food and environmental health. 

The lunch also was an opportunity for the delegates to discuss their fund- and awareness-raising book, “Recipes for Alaska’s Food Future,” a compilation of recipes, stories, photos and artwork focusing on Alaska teens’ regional and cultural connections to local foods.

“It was pretty windy, but (the delegates) handled it beautifully. We had some great local food and talked about the book that just came out and they were just shining,” said Claire Pywell, AYEA youth leadership coordinator.