To ensure that the council would be representative of Massachusetts youth, planning meetings were held across the state in Boston, Lowell, Worcester and Springfield. Bell said the meetings took on a “ripple effect,” with attendance numbers rising from the first meeting in Boston to the fourth in Springfield. All told, more than 350 Massachusetts youth took part.
The young people “walked away with a sense of camaraderie,” said Anny Jean-Jacques, an Office of Community Affairs liaison instrumental in the council’s planning. “There are differences, but the common threads are developing leadership and representing the Commonwealth.”
Two other key threads, Bell stressed in a recent Banner interview, were diversity and inclusion.
“Massachusetts is a diverse mix, but [there’s] not diverse participation,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that everyone had a voice.”
There certainly were plenty of voices in the makeup of the council. Bell said more than 83 youth-serving organizations, faith-based groups and state and local government agencies have had a hand in the project’s progress.
A “working group” culled from the initial meetings determined the structure of the council: Prospective councilors must be between the ages of 14 and 20, and will serve two-year terms (or until they reach their 21st birthdays, whichever comes first). Rather than allocating delegates based on population figures, each of Massachusetts’ 14 counties is assigned two local youth council representatives, a decision Bell said was made to promote equal representation.
According to Jean-Jacques, over 300 applications were received for the 28 representative slots. Contrary to most selection processes, the council’s working group didn’t place a major emphasis on scholastic performance — in fact, the only acknowledgement of formal education at all is the statement that council meetings would not interfere with school schedules.
“We didn’t want [academics] to be a limiting factor,” said Jean-Jacques.
Rather than test scores, grades and lists of after-school activities, prospective members were questioned about their motivation for joining the youth council, their expectations and personal goals, and what they felt they could contribute to forwarding the governor’s four priorities.
According to Bell, the councilors entered their meetings very much on the same page and with similar goals. Early on, according to a number of council members, education and economic development have been focal points.
Stanley Narcisse, 20, of Haverhill, says education in the Commonwealth should be more focused on current events.
“From my experience, most teens, when they go to school, think their classes are boring and outdated,” said Narcisse, one of two representatives from Essex County. “They want to learn more about what is going on today, instead of just what happened in the past.”
Narcisse also works closely with students at Haverhill High School, his alma mater, through the school’s Violence Intervention and Prevention program. He says he’d like to address the issues of alcohol and drug use, as well as what he perceives as a lack of “goal-oriented” thinking among young people.
For his part, Eddie Mercado, 19, a Lowell resident representing Middlesex County, wants to work to add conflict resolution training as a standard part of schooling.
“[In schools,] everything is competitive, from sports to clubs, but they don’t have any curriculum that teaches students how to understand people’s backgrounds and social orientations,” said Mercado.
Mercado, who said he was a former gang member, is now involved with the United Teen Equality Center, or UTEC, a Lowell-based outreach organization that works to combat gang violence and provide young people with a safe place to turn. He said he plans to attend college, study political science and, one day, run for president of the United States.
“Education is the key to helping people make the right decisions,” said Mercado. “It’s important to learn to solve conflicts verbally and not physically. When people become well informed about one another, they’re less likely to be in fear over their differences. That’s really the first step in building intercultural and interpersonal relationships.”
Worcester County representative Danielle Pingue, 17, said that council meetings are an empowering experience, if for no other reason than youth representatives can really have their say.
At her first meeting, “I felt like I was in a wonder-world, because my ideas were heard and they’re held on the same level as if they were coming from the president of the United States,” said Pingue, who lives in Worcester. “When I go in there, my status as a black woman is reaffirmed.
“If I have the bravery to stand up and say … ‘Let’s tell authorities what we want to do,’ then I know that I can do it — no matter how young or old I am, that’s still a possibility for me,” she added. “That’s what the youth council has shown me.”
Perhaps as important, it’s also afforded Pingue and the other council’s other members the opportunity to blaze their own trail.
“… I don’t have to be part of something that is already established — I can be the first, I can be the one-and-only, and there’ll still be people around me who want to make that change, who want to effect that change,” she said.
Even in dire economic times, the Patrick administration has supported the council’s efforts to effect change. Thus far, the council’s 2009 operating budget of approximately $50,000 has been funded primarily through contributions from “state agencies involved with providing services to youth,” according to Marilyn Anderson Chase, the state’s assistant secretary for children, youth and families.
And providing services to youth is the council’s primary goal. Right now, youth council representatives are reaching out to their communities to solicit input Patrick’s priorities to get a sense of where young people think the governor should be focusing. They will compile their findings in a report, scheduled to be submitted to Patrick in August.
While implementation of the council’s recommendations is sure to be contingent on their scope and cost, Bell said he is confident that the council’s contributions will be meaningful.
“As the governor says, when people are invested in something, they will see it through till the end,” he said.
At the council's Web site, you can find pictures and video from the swearing-in of the inaugural members of the Governor's Statewide Youth Council, the full text of the April 2008 executive order that established the council, information on the review committee and working group that help set up the organization's structure and more. More »
Members “will be on the front lines of policy discussions, sharing what they see in their communities and talking about how state government and communities can work together to find a solution,” according to a statement from the governor’s office. More »
While the decision to vote, and the credit for doing so, is ultimately left to the individual voter, communities like Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Mattapan — along with others throughout Boston and Chelsea — benefited from the efforts of the Civic Engagement Initiative (CEI), a recently completed six-year voter mobilization effort. More »