Making themselves heard: Northampton Youth Commission members share perspectives on issues from climate to BMI
|Published: 11-20-2023 6:14 PM
NORTHAMPTON — Willa Polin, a junior at Northampton High School, grew up outspoken and extroverted, excited to speak her mind during class.
Now that she’s a little older, Polin said she is often told to speak louder, speak quieter, or not to talk at all, especially when it comes to social justice topics. “I feel as if I’m losing part of myself,” she said.
Without voting rights or the ability to hold office, high school students often find themselves feeling powerless when it comes to effecting change in the world.
In an effort to raise youth voices, members of the Northampton Youth Commission organized a public hearing at NHS last Friday, where students testified before state Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and other community leaders about issues of their foremost concern.
While students spoke on a range of topics including reproductive rights, climate change, voting age and mental health, a common theme was present in each student’s testimony: a need for youth voices.
“We wanted to hold this hearing as a space for AFAB [assigned-female at birth] and female-identifying students to really have a platform to share your thoughts and what you’re thinking about, because there aren’t often spaces for just our group of people,” said Amelia Durbin, co-vice chair of the Northampton Youth Commission.
The youth commission is a mayor-appointed body of more than two dozen young people ages 13 to 18 who organize at bimonthly meetings and work with elected officials and community leaders on policy and legislation.
“It’s an honor to learn from you and to be urged on by you,” said Comerford. “We know you’re the rising electorate, and I don’t think there’s anything more powerful in the entire world.”
During the first half of the event, students were given a few minutes each to testify about issues they care about. Students then organized into two breakout groups, with Comerford and Sabadosa each listening to a group.
Several students expressed support for the “Vote16” campaign around the nation and world to lower the voting age from 18 to 16.
“We as young people spend so much of our time in school dealing with the realities of decisions made by adults who don’t technically formally represent us,” said Lila Nields-Duffy, who has worked on the issue as a youth commission member for three years. “Our voices could be enough to make a difference in elections.”
Kai Imperial-Jewett spoke to the power voters have simply because politicians must listen to their constituents.
“Lowering the voting age would force local politicians to listen to young people and address their concerns,” said Imperial-Jewett. “[It] would also encourage schools to put more effort into having higher quality civics education programs.”
Another issue at the tops of students’ minds was menstrual and reproductive justice.
“Periods have been stigmatized throughout history across cultures being linked to corruption and openness, a source of shame and embarrassment, as sort of a cause of discrimination and prejudice,” said Seiko Helen Tejirian.
Tejirian noted that in Washington, D.C., students will be required to take classes on menstrual health during school, making it the first jurisdiction in the country to do so. “My hope is that this is implemented in Massachusetts as well,” Tejirian said.
Beyond the stigma and lack of knowledge associated with periods, Zara Usman said the “pink tax” — the tendency of products marketed for women to be more costly than so-called men’s products — creates cost barriers to low-income people who menstruate.
As for other health issues, Lucy Grossman expressed a need for a review of the health class curriculum, specifically as it relates to weight and eating disorders.
“The concept of educating around sex and mental health is really good, but the execution has felt lackluster and almost harmful,” Grossman said.
One of those harmful moments, Grossman explained, was a “disturbing” hourlong movie about obesity in America that continuously referenced Body Mass Index, or BMI, a health measurement tool that calculates body fat based on a person’s height and weight that’s become controversial.
Following the movie, students were asked to calculate their BMI during class next to their peers, Grossman said.
“It was just depressing and weird and not OK … My doctor has never once mentioned the BMI,” said Grossman. “I think there definitely needs to be a review of the health curriculum and just take out that movie altogether.”
Other students testified about climate change, “which poses an existential threat to people everywhere, but especially to young people who will experience unimaginable disasters within our lifetimes,” said Clare Kurtzman.
Kurtzman noted that the area is already experiencing the effects of climate change, with wildfire smoke in June making the air so unhealthy that the school canceled outdoor activities; heavy rainfall in July flooding farms and wiping out roads; and a heat wave in the fall making it difficult to return to school.
“Our generation will be forced to deal with the effects of these decisions,” said Ella Baker-Dekater. “For our sake, and for the sake of the people suffering around the world, we’re asking you to please take the climate emergency seriously. Our future depends on it.”
Other topics discussed included obstacles faced by neurodivergent students, including those with ADHD, autism and dyslexia; representation of female, BIPOC and LGBTQ people in the media and education; violence and catcalling on the streets of Northampton; and mental health issues teens face in a post-COVID world.
“What strikes me is that the issues don’t change at all,” Sabadosa said. “It could have been 1997, and I could have been up here reading you my testimony and I would have said a lot of the same things.”
“While I could list bills and policies and ways that we’re going to try to make it better, the truth is that legislation alone is not going to fix this,” she said. “It takes actual people wanting to make cultural changes, that is going to be that shift. ... You can help each other, and I hope you will keep inviting us back to events like this so that we can keep hearing from you directly.”
Both Sabadosa and Comerford responded to students’ concerns that without a vote, politicians don’t listen to their voices.
“I agree with you that we absolutely have to go further… but I do want you to know that there are people at the state level receiving your calls to action and your advocacy and being actually led by you,” said Comerford.
Shaitia Spruell, executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, echoed Comerford, telling the students, “You all really do have the power … to really move some key issues that we’ve been trying to move for decades.”
Following the event, the hearing subcommittee of the commission plans to use information from the hearing, in addition to providing a survey to the student body at large, to create an agenda and point out legislation most important to female students in Northampton.Maddie Fabian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.