‘Wake up and listen to the kids’

  • Environmental issues were discussed at the YELO forum, Youth Engage with Legislators and Officials, at the Greenfield High School on Friday . January 11, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • Rep. Jo Comerford listens to youths at the YELO forum, Youth Engage with Legislators and Officials, at the Greenfield High School on Friday . January 11, 2019 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • City Councilor Otis Wheeler, right, talks to youths at the YELO forum, Youth Engage with Legislators and Officials, at the Greenfield High School on Friday. Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 1/15/2019 12:54:06 PM

What do teens want? Ask and you shall hear, was the lesson that came out of last Friday’s YELO forum (Youths Engage with Legislators and Officials) at Greenfield High School. Contrary to popular opinion, teens are paying attention to topical issues and have formed opinions on vaping, homelessness, the environment and the lack of places to hang out. Last Friday’s annual event, sponsored by DIAL/SELF, an agency providing outreach, advocacy and residential services to area teens, offered these soon-to-be voters a direct pipeline into the thinking of policy-makers.

Attending for the first time was newly elected state Sen. Jo Commerford, D-Northampton, who declared, “It’s the last day of my first week and I feel like I just got the biggest gift.” Joining Commerford were state Rep. Paul Mark, and Greenfield City Councilors Tim Dolan, Isaac Mass, Verne Sund, Otis Wheeler and Sheila Gilmour. Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Jordana Harper and School Committee Chairwoman Adrienne Nunez also joined in.

Among the unvarnished truths that emerged were that the vaping discussion needs to start long before high school; Hadley’s malls and arcades attract teens like moths to light; teens feel vulnerable to homelessness, and they care about the environment.

It sounds like our leaders were listening. Councilor Wheeler said, “I learned on a specific level that vaping in high schools is more of a problem than I realized, but there’s a lot of young people here that are interested in educating.” Councilor Mass said he heard from the students that a town social worker to do intervention on homelessness is “maybe something we can do later on.” Harper proposed starting a student-led standing task force to say what the school district should be doing on the environment. And Councilor Dolan said, “I was struck by the extent to which a third space – not school and not home – is important for folks your age. I’d like to make that a priority.” This elicited the loudest round of finger snaps registering on the “applause meter.”

So how about jump-starting that long-delayed skate park, supporting additional housing for vulnerable older teens, sending high-schoolers into the middle- and elementary schools to help make those important pitches against vaping and other addictions to kids at a formative age, a suggestion made by high school senior Dionn Casanova, and implementing Harper’s vision for a “green roof” on GHS?

Former state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, who never missed a teen legislative forum, liked to point to then-state Sen. Benjamin Downing, who was first elected when he was 25. “Let him be an object lesson to you.” Just seeing their elected leaders up close and personal is an important take-away for the teens in attendance, and an incentive to register to vote. “I came in here thinking I was going to be talked to by a bunch of politicians on issues, and they actually asked me about the issues,” said senior Augie Seuffert.

Commerford said, “We should flip the paradigm; people should talk and we should listen,” and Harper said, “I think the adults need to wake up and listen to the kids.” For one afternoon, that’s exactly what happened.

Kudos to our local leaders who attended and a chorus of finger snaps to the teens who shared their opinions.

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