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ON THE SCENE: Empowering youth in civic affairs
May 4, 2017

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Imagine if our recent delegations to Austria, Lausanne, Switzerland, and Almaty, Kazakhstan included youth, university, and Special Olympics athletes, people representing the very ages and life experiences of the athletes we wish to bring here.

Consider what a powerful message that would have delivered to the governing bodies of the Winter Youth Olympics, Special Olympics World Winter Games, and World University Games as well as to athletes, coaches, and officials participating in those events. It would have underscored our intention to organize world-class competitions and experiences sensitive to the desires and aspirations of the visiting athletes and their families.

The young members of our delegations would have been able to gain perspectives that would be valuable in planning our events and putting together our bid, as the athletes they encounter would be more open to sharing their thoughts with them than they would with adults. That's just human nature. Our opportunity going forward is to engage our youth in the planning for these competitions and to be a part of future bid presentations to secure these games.

Engaging youth in a similar manner can benefit a wide range of activities in our region. Consider that our mayor, town supervisor, head of the North Elba Park District and leaders of many other agencies and departments grew up in our community. The question is, what can we do better to nurture future leaders from amongst the young people living in our community today?

Lake Placid High School senior Gabby Armstrong decided to explore just that question this past Sunday afternoon, April 30, at the Lake Placid Beach House community center. She is one of those young people who throw themselves into multiple activities, not the least of which is as a nationally ranked nordic athlete. Armstrong is also a member of the Lake Placid and Wilmington Connecting Youth and Communities Coalition. Indeed, she credits the CYC for getting her involved in a number of initiatives and providing her opportunities to receive leadership training.

"I've been on the CYC board since eighth grade," said Armstrong. "Through them, I went to three CADCA National Leadership Initiatives. These are gigantic events where coalitions that support youth come together. They have a special youth component where they teach you how to create logic models and develop problem solving initiatives to address challenges in your community and create lasting change. So it was a natural step to have my senior project focused that topic. I hope this discussion will generate ideas for encouraging youth to become engaged citizens, promoting life-long community involvement, and developing youth leaders."

The well-attended session opened with presentations by four panelists recruited by Armstrong, followed by an open discussion. The panelists were Chris Morris, communications officer of the Adirondack Foundation; Adam Stewart, environmental education assistant for the state Department of Environmental Conservation; Silas Swanson, Adirondack Youth Climate Summit leader; and Brayden White, from the St. Regis Mohawk Akwesasne Reservation, northeastern representative for the United National Indian Tribal Youth Council Executive Committee.

"A couple years ago while attending a women and leadership program at the Lake Placid Conference Center, Barbara Rice said something that stuck with me," said Morris. "She said, 'In the Adirondacks, too many decisions get made without a woman in the room.' I think that can be extended to the youth in our community, and by youth I mean people from middle school to young adults. I think that finding ways to proactively empower young people to be decision makers is good for the future the Adirondack region. I think it's incumbent on adults to be flexible in their decision making process so it is as welcoming as possible for young people."

"Children are people too," said Stewart. "They should be provided the opportunity to have their voice heard, and adults should be mindful of not speaking down to them. Youth are inspired to get involved when they see that young people's participation and ideas are welcomed."

"I think it's incredibly important to have young people involved," said Swanson. "There are a lot of passionate youth in our schools. Given the opportunity, they'd love to be involved. I've served as a youth representative on the Saranac Lake School Board and I know that hearing young people's perspective is appreciated just as it is for the youth to have a voice. Kids care. They don't have a political agenda; they'll provide straight talk on an issue they care about."

"It's an ever changing world," said White. "The youth on your board or committee represents the future. They're concerned about tomorrow. With them you'll get raw feedback."

A wide array of challenges and opportunities were raised and listed with Armstrong ending up with over two dozen bullet points. Several called for exploring ways of getting more youth to experience the assets we have, most especially through getting out in nature, but also through learning how the town works be it the highway or electrical departments, preparing the arenas for events, or experiencing a village or town board meeting.

It was agreed that youth need mentors, be they mentored by older youth or adults, and that retirees represent a valuable resource as they have a wealth of knowledge to impart. Several people shared experiences on how adults made a difference in their lives. For Adam Stewart it was Brother Yusef, a Vietnam veteran who was raised in Brooklyn, spent time in prison in the Adirondacks, and after his release dedicated his life to engaging inner-city youth from the capital region in nature.

My mentor was Deputy Mayor Jack Barry, who got me involved in the Mill Pond Dam restoration project, an initiative that took over seven years to accomplish and included taking me to New York State Conference of Mayors, being trained in grant writing, learning how to design a log crib dam, and helping organize fundraisers. Silas spoke about the many skills he gained through the Youth Climate Summit program, and Brayden shared the thrill of meeting President Barack Obama.

Karen Armstrong's comment made during the lively discussion, "If a kid can do it, they should do it!," struck a chord with many. Key is creating opportunities for youth to be successful, flexibility, and being mindful that an increasing percent of our youth's families are struggling economically.

"We've always struggled with the question, how do we get youth engaged," said Bill Frazer of the Barkeater Trails Alliance. "My big takeaway there is a lot of potential kids out there, we just need to reach out to them to be a point person for us."

"I felt it was a really good presentation by Gabby and all the panelists," said Lake Placid High?School senior Birk Albert. "She did a good job organizing the event and finding the right people for the panel. I felt the crowd really interacted well and many good ideas were raised."

"I think people came up with many solid steps we can take," said Gabby Armstrong.

Her results will be posted on the CYC website and in its quarterly magazine.

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