Harnessing the Power of Youth Advocacy in Alaska

By David Song, AASB Alaska Fellow

The last few years have shown that across the globe, young people now have the ability to set the agenda and impact real change. Advocates like Greta Thunberg and Fairbanks environmental activist Nanieezh Peter have kept climate change at the forefront of political debate, and the Stoneman-Douglas students have served as advocates for gun safety in our country. Our Alaskan students can be an excellent resource for advocacy work in Alaska. 

 As an Alaska Fellow with the Association of Alaska School Boards, one of my primary responsibilities is to assist AASB with its youth engagement initiatives. Having served as an educator/researcher in other districts and states, I was surprised to see the opportunities Alaskan students have to speak to decision-makers about their experiences and the ways they can impact policy in Alaska. 

Why do Alaskan student’s voices matter?

Alaska’s unique culture and geography mean that place-based approaches to education are an essential part of AASB’s advocacy work. Alaskan school districts have vastly different needs. Students working with their school boards are uniquely positioned to share this perspective and influence statewide policies. 

I was very impressed by students I have met at AASB’s youth engagement events, as were the policymakers who were able to gain a deeper understanding of Alaskan students’ experiences. 

Opportunities for Youth Advocacy

AASB provides an annual opportunity, the Youth Advocacy Institute (YAI), to familiarize student leaders from across the state with the legislative process and coach them through mock testimony. I was heartened by the eloquent and thoughtful messages Alaskan students had prepared for their legislators. While students were learning the specific procedures of the legislative processes, they were already familiar with the issues current bills sought to address, such as mental health, cultural revitalization, substance abuse, and the underfunding of education in Alaska. 

Impact on Legislators and Participants:

Regardless of political ideology, the legislators listened carefully to students’ perspectives and advocacy. Legislators answered candidly and paid close attention to the real-life experiences of students who have seen first-hand the negative impacts of cuts to school spending. Students spoke clearly about how other policies, such as cuts to the ferry system, or mental health resources, impacted their friends, their sports, and their families’ livelihoods. YAI participants and their testimonies had a profound impact on the legislators they spoke to, and this opportunity helped validate and inspire the youth who had decided to talk about their experiences. 

The students who attended gained a new confidence that will help them to advocate for their schools and communities, and ultimately become the types of leaders we need in Alaska. As one attendee said, “I really loved the testifying; it is a skill we will use later in life, either through public speaking or even forming a well-thought-out opinion to express to others.” Overall, YAI and similar statewide gatherings of student leaders help develop lifelong leadership skills, provides a valuable opportunity for students to bridge the rural-urban gap, and experience unique perspectives from all over this diverse state. 

How do we replicate and continue this engagement back in our home communities, or even outside of the state?

 The first and most crucial step is to treat young adults as precisely that: adults who are capable of engaging with issues in a deep and meaningful way. Nationally and in Alaska, we have benefitted from student action. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Expose students to actual legislation, bills, and ballot initiatives that have a real impact on their daily lives, even if they are not old enough to vote. 
  • Introduce students to their legislators and the various channels of communication such as their local LIO, writing a letter, or, when possible, in-person testimony. 
  • Support a Model UN, Mock Trial, Youth Government club, or Youth Tribal Assembly, all of which can familiarize students with the specific processes, relevant policy issues, and builds students’ confidence in the policy arena. 
  • Have students think about and discuss the issues that impact their communities personally and have them speak about their experiences to the class, school board, city, state, or tribal assemblies.  
  • Create avenues for student government to make decisions that have a material impact on the students’ lives. When youth see the ability for their advocacy around an issue to tangibly improve their student experience, they will advocate for themselves. Whether that advocacy is legislative testimony or one on one situations, these are essential skills for students. 

For more youth advocacy support or tools, please contact info@nullaasb.org