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Teenagers sink teeth into real-world politics

Published on: October 01, 2004

Teen participation in politics has moved beyond campaigning for student government, with many Seattle-area teenagers spreading their political wings in both the local and national arena.

Lydia DePillis, a 17-year-old Garfield High School senior, spent her summer interning in the offices of I-884, The Education Initiative. DePillis says she feels that she and future students will be directly impacted by the success or failure of this initiative, so working for it is gratifying. Her internship has given her an appreciation for the intense hard work that comprises the nitty-gritty of the political process: "Grass-roots campaigning," she says, "is not for the faint of heart!"

As part of her volunteer work in the I-884 office, Lydia was asked to create a web log (blog) so that she and the other three interns would have a public forum for their newly minted political observations.

Other than a brush with student government as a sixth-grader at Seattle's Lowell Elementary and a weekly dose of the television program "The West Wing," Lydia's political education began in earnest at age 16 when she participated in a three-week Jr. State of America assembly in Washington, D.C. She and the other teenaged delegates toured monuments and public offices, listened to speeches by politicians and discovered the potent power of being able to ask these lawmakers direct questions.

When asked what non-voting teens can bring to participatory democracy, Lydia says, "Kids have different concerns from adults. They are being raised in a different mold. You need the voices of young people to make a future that will work for them. Adult politicians are shaping a future that they may not have to live through. Teens should recognize this."

Tara O'Hanlon, 17, is a senior at Seattle Prep. During her freshman year, both her father and her history teacher encouraged Tara to participate in the YMCA Youth and Government Mock Trial program. In Mock Trial, students take roles such as witness, bailiff or attorney and spend most of the year studying the assigned topic to prepare for competition. Last year, Tara's team won at the state level and traveled to Florida for national competition.

Mock Trial, Tara says, "has helped my critical thinking, my public speaking skills -- and I now love to be put on the spot!" Her ability to think on her feet in front of the judges (most of whom are practicing attorneys) has carried over into school situations. Tara feels that Mock Trial has helped her find a peer group of other politically aware teens and increased her political consciousness. Given all this, it's not surprising that 96 percent of YMCA Youth and Government alumni are registered to vote, compared to 66 percent generally.

J.B. Tengco, Washington Com-munications Director for the Kerry-Edwards Coordinated Campaign, suggests that parents nurture and honor their teens' political idealism. The Kerry-Edwards campaign has many young volunteers in the field handing out literature, along with college and high school student interns who work in campaign headquarters. Politically active parents often take kids and younger teens with them canvassing neighborhoods.

(The Bellevue office of the Bush-Cheney campaign says it also utilizes teen volunteers, although the campaign did not respond to several requests for interviews with local teens who are helping the presidential re-election effort.)

According to Tengco, volunteering is a great way to awaken younger teens to politics in action. Teens at campaign headquarters learn office skills and how to be part of a team. Tengco says they also take the political empowerment they learn back to their high school and college campuses, breeding further political involvement.

The teens fighting for the Ballard Bowl Skate Park (22nd Avenue Northwest and Northwest 57th Street) embody political action. The idea of a Ballard Skate Bowl was saved in May after teens and adults who use the Bowl amassed a 4,000-signature petition, lobbied the Seattle City Council and the Mayor, and took their struggle public via the media.

The existing Bowl, initially planned as a temporary structure but built to high standards, is now slated for demolition. The Seattle Parks Department plans to build another permanent Bowl at the same address but sited differently and integrated into a larger park. Bowl users object to the firm chosen to design the new Bowl.

"As a social experiment, it's working," says Kate Martin, founder of the Seattle group Parents for Skate Parks. The teenagers lobbying for the Ballard Bowl have worked hard with elected and appointed officials. "They understand political process, not just protest," Martin says. Being part of this struggle "could change these kids' attitudes for life.

"The boundless energy that is inherent in the skate culture has definitely helped keep the process going," Martin adds. Parents of teens must participate in the political process, she says, even though they may be busy juggling work and family demands. She feels that the Seattle area needs many more parks with facilities like the Ballard Bowl -- facilities designed with heavy input from the teens who will use them. "The kids want to go there. They want parks designed by skaters, not landscape architects." Asked if the teenagers will consider that the political process has failed if the existing skate bowl is bulldozed, Martin says, "Yes. And everybody should."

How do parents help teens run these emotional rapids? The answer may be to try to view political struggle in historical perspective. Political change usually requires more than one turn at bat. Passion breeds involvement. A teen who understands the power of the political process will be unlikely to throw away her vote.

These teens face their futures as adult American citizens. Their experiences fighting hard for something they care deeply about will be currency in their pocket -- for the battles ahead.

Hands-on civics lessons for teens:

Paula Becker is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three.

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