Story and photos by Mary Sheely
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
It starts out the way you might imagine an event involving high school and middle school students: With a game.
“We want to get to know you,” announces a girl in a striped shirt, stepping into the middle of a circle of chairs set up today on a sunny afternoon at Delridge Community Center.
She lays out the rules of an icebreaker game, which eventually leads to a lot of students scrambling to change seats. But though the game is fun, the goals of the meeting are serious.
The Seattle Youth Commission is a group of 25 students from across the city, explains third-year Youth Commission intern Arielle Washington (above), a senior at Chief Sealth High School. The event at Delridge Community Center is one of five being held citywide to give local youth a chance to share their feelings on the issues affecting their communities, and to suggest possible solutions.
The meetings are not empty exercises. At the end of the year, the Youth Commission will distill down suggestions and concerns into a series of policy proposals that will be presented to the mayor. And some of those proposals should be adopted by the city.
“In 2008, we proposed a youth violence policy,” says Washington. “Some of our ideas have been used in the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. I was really pumped about that.”
“He listens to us,” Washington says of outgoing Mayor Greg Nickels, and expresses her hopes that incoming mayor Mike McGinn will, too.
Back in the group, the game is over and students are using Post-It Notes to jot down the issues they hope to discuss. Kaia Hlavacek, Hayley Donohue, and Karisa Streit, all West Seattle residents who are students at Holy Names Academy on Capitol Hill, are considering “teen drinking” as a suggested topic. It ends up as one of three to be discussed, along with violence and racism.
The students break into three smaller groups, and there it becomes evident that they are still, after all, kids. While a few aren’t shy about speaking up in front of strangers, many clam up and stare at their shoes. Youth leaders like Catherine Quinn (above left), a student at The Center School, and Cassie Tapia (above right), a freshman at Evergreen, gamely try to engage the quieter students, tossing out questions and writing answers on a white board. It looks for all the world like a business meeting.
In the teen violence discussion group, Mohamed Mohamed (above left; named for both his grandfather and the prophet), a senior at Chief Sealth, says he feels violence is “more of a community thing than a school thing.” He hasn’t seen many problems at school, but says of the greater community, “The kids I grew up with, to see them get into trouble, I’m not really that happy.”
Conversation turns to expanded after-school programs, and whether those could help keep kids out of trouble. The problem, says Mohamed, isn’t that programs don’t exist. “It’s persuading people to attend.”
The theme recurs when the group, united once again in a large circle, discusses how to combat racism at school. Thomas Cornell (above), a Bishop Blanchet student, tells a story about an event where students were encouraged to sit with those of other races at lunch. “It didn’t really work,” he says. “Everybody still sat with their own group. It’s not like they could force them to sit with other people. It has to start somewhere at a deeper level.”
After an hour, the meeting breaks up. Youth Commission members regroup and share some of their frustration about the difficulties they had today keeping the conversation going.
“It feels like it has to do with it being a Saturday,” says Jenny Frankl, a program assistant with the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Previous meetings, held after school, drew larger crowds and more spirited discussion, she says. Still, there’s something impressive about any student who would willingly give up an hour of time on a sunny Saturday to talk about community issues.
“I think I’m learning a lot. It’s a learning experience,” says Leiato, who led the icebreaker game. “Part of the reason I came into the program was to develop my leadership skills.”
As commission members tally up what went wrong, what went right, and how they’ll approach the fifth and final Seattle Youth Commission community meeting, 3:30-4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Ballard Branch Library, it’s obvious that learning and leading are something all of them are doing well.