Youth leaders challenge local officials at candidates forum
Kate Moreau, Jenn Thomas, and Ally Yeomans, with other teens around the state, took advantage of the unique opportunity to engage in a face-to-face dialogue with mentoring public officials. Produced by the Newport County Youth Council, the three-day retreat culminated in a forum with local politicians to discuss topics and concerns brought up during the conference.
Officials and candidates for public office at the municipal, state, and national levels - 15 in all - met with the young leaders in a final forum on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 10. From Jamestown, School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser joined the panel. The invited guests addressed questions from the teenage participants on topics ranging from public education to genocide in Africa.
A number of the politicians said they were impressed with the direct, specific, and focused questions about policy changes asked by the youth. State Senator Teresa Paiva Weed praised the teens on their preparedness and clarity. "It's always challenging to mix local, state, and federal issues," she said, adding that it was very important for the younger generation to participate in the process of policy making.
Robert Oliveira, a candidate running for city council in Newport, also praised the youth leaders. "They were much more well-organized and put together than the politicians," he noted.
Attorney General Patrick Lynch made a cameo appearance, answering one of the questions on equal marriage rights, before leaving the forum early. Introducing himself as the state's "top law enforcer," Lynch offered an overview of the laws associated with civil unions. "Rhode Island is based on equality and fairness," he said, adding words of appreciation for the care the teens showed toward sensitive social issues.
Ally Yeomans considered the best part of the retreat was getting to talk with the public officials. "Most of the time adults don't listen to us. Here, they were forced to listen and answer our questions," she said.
The young leaders, however, admitted they were surprised at the less-than-professional behavior exhibited by the panelists. The young women commented on the adults' lack of focus on the questions and aggression they showed toward each other. Kate Moreau was surprised at the emotion shown by the adult participants. "I never thought they would have such strong feelings," she said. Yeomans agreed, adding, "They got off topic a lot."
At one point, Mediator Sheila Mullowney, managing editor of the Newport Daily News, scolded Providence mayoral candidate Christopher Young and accused him of using the forum as a political platform. "Just answer the question," she said. Later, when Mullowney again reprimanded Young for posing his own political agenda, Young replied, "I don't even know why I'm here."
Mullowney reminded the panelists that they were there for the youngsters. "They are asking what you can do," she said.
Indeed, at times the officials were often hard pressed to come up with concrete answers to some of the sharp questions about policy asked by the teenagers. Moreau pointed out that many people in the world do not like Americans because of our foreign policies. "How can you convince us that racism doesn't exist in our policies?" she asked. State Sen.
Charles Levesque showed his frustration by answering, "I don't know if it's a good idea to call our policies racist." But Jenn Thomas kept the pressure on by asking, "Why are our special interests more important than African lives?"
Levesque responded to the young participants by saying that their representatives could, at least, "commit to you to continue talking and bringing up these issues." He noted that problems begin with poverty, and working with the local poor was the first step to eventually affecting global change.
At the closing of the summit, the youth showed their gratitude to the adult organizers and mentors with flowers. "We want to
thank someone very special to us," said Moreau, as they called Teen Center Coordinator Melissa Minto up to the stage for a rose.
Following the candidates forum, the three youth representatives from Jamestown presented the launch of the new NCYC Web site at www.ncyouthconnect.org
The three Jamestowners are currently the featured teens on the site.
For those interested in becoming involved in teen leadership activities and other events, all are invited to join the meetings of the NCYC every Tuesday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Newport. More information can be found on the new Web site.