By Rebecca Dravis
02:09AM / Monday, March 18, 2019
Malina Ziaja, a junior at Hoosac Valley High School, speaks during the coalition youth forum on March 12.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The youth spoke, and the adults listened.
Seven young people from the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's Youth Leadership Program led the Coalition's monthly form on March 12. Representing all four North County high schools, the teens talked to the adults about why adults don't always listen to the point of view of teenagers — and how that can change.
While the youths lead a NBCC forum every year, usually they pick a topic. This year, however, NBCC Executive Director Amber Besaw said, the topic came out the needs assessment forum back in September, when those present questioned why youth voices weren't heard as much as they could be. So the youth this year had a mission for this forum, she said.
"We took it right to the youth and said, 'You talk to us,' " she said.
And they did — sharing both prepared and spontaneous conversation with the 75 or so adults in the room. They offered some definitions and some statistics to frame the conversation at the beginning, showed a video with some of their peers talking about how they felt their voices didn't matter, and later spoke about their own experiences. In the middle, they had the forum participants break into groups so that the youths could lead small groups talking about how they as the adults see the problem and offer some ideas on how to make it better.
In the first breakout session, one group talked about the obstacles to youth voices being heard, like intimidation, language and time. Another group talked about where youth voices are currently heard, in spaces like sports, art shows, 4H club and the Roots Teen Center. Another group talked about who would benefit if youth voices were heard more — schools, government and businesses were three examples. The final group talked about what it would mean to incorporate youth voices, like letting teens have an equal say in decision making and have accessible meetings.
A second breakout session focused on solutions — how youth voices can be better incorporated into the community. One group discussed how schools can listen to youths better, with ideas like a youth-driven curriculum and more civics classes. Another talked about how businesses could incorporate youths more in ways like internships or co-ops, marketing to young people and even a "youth discount" like a senior discount. The third group discussed participation in local government, where ideas such as lowering the voting age and youth members on school committees were pitched. The final group talked about other opportunities outside of school, like youths being involved in nonprofit boards of directors and possibly writing columns about youth issues.
Coalition Executive Director Amber Besaw reads a letter from North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard.
The youths led these sessions and listened to the adults' ideas. And although one adult participant commented that the adults were doing much of the talking and suggesting, the seven teenagers had plenty of opportunity to express their own thoughts and opinions — which they did.
On feeling validated by their peers for speaking up: "Peer rewards for all this involvement are well below national and county average," said Joaquin Barnes, a freshman at McCann Technical School.
On youths putting themselves and their opinion out there: "If you want more people to make a difference, you have to speak up," said Elijah Archer, a seventh-grader at Drury High School.
On the benefit of listening to youths: "Believe it or not, there are some benefits to youth have a voice in the community," said Gabby Glacier, a junior at Hoosac Valley High School.
"If we incorporate youth more, it will strengthen adults, too," said Felicia Laroche, a freshman at Mount Greylock Regional High School. "You guys came, so you care, obviously."
On a positive experience with working with the new director of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum on a centennial celebration: "She's been willing to listen to me," said Malina Ziaja, a junior at Hoosac Valley High School. "She's been really receptive to my ideas around that."
As for the adults, many more may be taking more action than just listening. Besaw read a letter from North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard, who couldn't be at the forum because he was attending a Drury High School basketball tournament game. But in the later, he vowed to "explore and consider" a youth commission in North Adams.
"That conversation will be happening," he said.