by Cindy Lemke
Wow! Just, wow! What an experience our week in D.C. was. Seeing, walking past and even entering the doors of the buildings in which this nation’s work is conducted was an incredible and awe-inspiring opportunity. Visiting the memorials along the Mall and touring just a few of the museums located in our nation’s Capital provided new knowledge along with stark reminders of all it has taken to bring us to where we are today. Overwhelmed and awe-inspired would describe two of the emotions I felt over the week.
Out of everything that we did (71 youth and adults), the opportunity that brought this adult chaperone the most joy was sharing in and observing the process that transformed the entire group (ages 14-18) into political advocates. I learned an important distinction this week. A lobbyist is someone who is paid to promote a political agenda with legislators. Advocates are not paid. Our youth are advocates.
On Tuesday three representatives from the United Church of Christ’s Washington DC Office of Public Policy and Advocacy (UCC DC) met with our group. Reverend Mike Neuroth, Thaddaeus Elliot, and Jessi Quin spent the day providing us with the information needed to be successful during the upcoming advocacy visits.
It was a long, arduous day of listening, collecting data, and learning how to address the 2023 Farm Bill as it relates to climate justice and gun violence. We divided into groups based on the congressional district in which each youth lived. Participants volunteered for a role within the group: introduce our group, outline what we wanted our elected official to do, tell our personal stories related to the Farm Bill or gun violence, ask questions related to the discussion, draw the conversation back to our primary focus, or take notes.
Watching this process unfold was incredible. During the time allotted, the young people chose their roles and roughed out what each was going to say. They were focused, productive, and supportive of one another.
Initially, I provided general suggestions such as slowing down, enunciation etc. It wasn’t long before the youth themselves began providing positive feedback regarding energy, eye contact, rate of speech etc. When someone struggled with self-confidence, others spoke up telling the anxious person “I know you can do this.” They gave tips to one another. During breaks they found corners in the meeting space to edit and practice their individual parts.
On Wednesday, June 26, as we walked to the UCC DC office on Capitol Hill, I must say the entire group appeared to be two to three years older as they swapped their shorts and t-shirts for their business casual attire.
When the time finally came for our group of six to meet with Rep. Dean Phillips, we made our way to the Rayburn office building. After introductions, the youth got right to the point and began their roles as advocates by sharing their views on eco-justice and gun violence. The youth were brilliant in their presentations. From Peyton’s group introductions and honest sharing of her experience with active shooter drills and emergency lockdowns to Ava’s specific request regarding eco-justice to Katy’s introduction to gun violence and her memory of a specific active shooter drill to Cai’s passion for the use of mushrooms for myco-restoration and soil remediation to Gabriel’s specific questions, the youth presented flawlessly. They were direct, professional, outwardly confident, and respectful throughout the meeting.
After having their photo taken with Rep. Phillips, Chris Jones, the staff person assigned to our group, told us that of all the constituent and lobbyist meetings Rep. Phillips had had during the week, theirs was by far the best. He then told the youth that if any of them had any interest in politics that their were many grants available for them to gain experience within the Washington DC political process. I wish you could have seen the shine in their eyes and the grins on their faces.
As we entered the elevator and the doors closed, we raised a silent cheer and shared a collective high five for a job well done.
Cindy Lemke, Adult Leader
(with Gabriel and Peyton from Robbinsdale-Parkway UCC and Cai, Katy and Ava from Peace UCC)
The Minnesota Conference UCC deepens connections within and beyond the Church that foster listening, healing justice, and spiritual transformation.