MARYSVILLE — Nearly two dozen students of all backgrounds, interests and grade point averages will serve on the community’s first Youth Advocacy Committee.
“We just didn’t want people that had like the 4.0s involved in every club — we wanted people that were (involved) but maybe not in traditional ways,” said Jason Smith, training and community outreach administrator for the city of Marysville.
Students were identified as candidates by their teachers, counselors and other school personnel, and they had the opportunity to meet with Smith to learn more about what it would mean to join.
Like many of her peers, when Christine Helo, a senior at Marysville Pilchuck High School, was offered the opportunity to serve on the committee, it was a no-brainer.
Helo, who identifies as Arab, said she has been on the receiving end of racist harassment in school.
“Sometimes when I’m in class, I have people making bomb noises or saying ‘go back to your country,’” she said.
Helo said she wants to be a agent of change so future generations don’t have to experience the same hate.
“We have to fight for what we think is right — no, actually, what we know is right,” Helo said. “We are the future.”
Smith built the framework for the committee from an idea Marysville Chief Administrative Officer Gloria Hirashima pitched. This was shared with Mayor Jon Nehring and the Diversity Advisory Committee who helped bring it to fruition.
“This was tied in with other things that were happening at the time — the issue at Marysville Pilchuck with racism” being one, Smith said. “It was like, well, why don’t we create a youth advocacy committee that we could provide them with baseline tools and then help them become stronger advocates within the city?”
Two separate incidents involving threats toward students of color at Marysville schools shaped conversations in the broader community over the past year and a half.
In one case, a white student reportedly said to another student, “Let’s kill all Black people,” during an online class. The other incident, in which a former Marysville student posted an image on social media holding what appeared to be a gun and threatening to kill people of color, led to a felony hate crime charge.
Committee members will develop several projects through monthly meetings. The goal is for students serving on the committee to come up with creative solutions promoting a more inclusive community, Smith said.
Students on the committee had the opportunity to attend a 20-hour leadership academy last week, including courses in equity and inclusion, as well as a public speaking clinic.
During the four-hour clinic, students drafted a speech about a topic they’re passionate about. Students shared that they were interested in issues such as mental health awareness, and barriers to education, housing and careers that result from immigration status.
“Another major outcome is getting students to think about how do they use evidence? And kind of shifting away from, ‘I just read it on the internet,’” Smith said. “We’re really wanting to get them to think deeper in terms of why is it important when you’re trying to be an advocate that you actually understand where the evidence you’re using comes from.”
Throughout the leadership academy, students got to hear from local and state officials about what it means to be an advocate within local and state government, as well as what it means to be an advocate at the grassroots level from Jacque Julien, executive director of the Communities of Color Coalition.
“The mayor was in the room when they shared the hate, the prejudice and the discrimination they face on a daily basis,” Julien said. “I would hope … we really see that we’ve been in crisis. Our mental health is at risk, if we ignore these things — it lives in our bodies. We know traumas are passed down from generation to generation.”
Julien, who said she experienced racism in Marysville schools as a student, has been involved with the advocacy committee since its inception. The Communities of Color Coalition donated nearly $7,000 to provide stipends for teens attending the leadership academy. This allowed working students to take time off to attend the academy without worrying about missing pay.
“As a youth, you have power. You have unlimited power — it’s untapped, yet to be explored,” Julien said. “That’s what excites me, is to see them one, excited, and two, strengthened, because that’s what happens when we support them and make room for them and give them the blueprint to use these tools.”
Many of the students said they saw the opportunity to serve on the committee as a way to prepare for life after high school.
Denise Miranda-Ramirez, a junior at Marysville Getchell, said she wants to become an immigration rights attorney.
“My parents didn’t have papers and my grandma got hers way too late to do anything she wanted in life,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of thinking that if I’m Hispanic and I have my papers, I can do everything. But another student like me, who doesn’t have papers, doesn’t have the same rights, same future, like I do.”
She said she hopes the program will help her learn how to advocate for all people of color.
Other committee members recognized that the formation of the advocacy committee is the first step in addressing systemic issues in their schools and broader community.
“At the end of the day, … — in all these things that are happening — ignorance is the main factor,” said Hugo Barbosa Cedano Jr., a junior at Marysville Pilchuck. “That’s what kills in our school system.”
The committee has a fluid structure, because the goal is to give students the tools to address social issues and the space to work collaboratively to imagine solutions.
“How is it that we say that everybody has a free right to education, when that’s not true?” Julien said. “How is it we’re sending our kids into a war zone? If everyday you face discrimination and racism, how is that getting a free education? We’re in different times. These things are not going ignored, we’re uprooting them and creating a new culture.”
Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; email@example.com. Twitter: @BredaIsabella.