Bill’s Passage Ensures Continued Youth Voice in Creating State Policies
DENVER – Growing up in poverty in the Bronx, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor reckons that people looked at her and saw only a poor latina from New York.
“People said I wasn’t smart enough and it was very hurtful to me,” she told 100 captivated 8th, 9th and 10th graders who had traveled from across Colorado to hear her speak at the public dedication ceremony of the sparkling new Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in Denver last Thursday, May 2.
The biggest challenge in coming of age was “dealing with people’s expectations … and having fun proving them wrong,” said Sotomayor, who went on to become the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court when she took office in 2009.
More than anything, Sotomayor encouraged the students to be bold. “Failure hurts. It can be mortifying,” she said. “The hardest thing to do is to take chances, when you could fail.”
Standing on the sidelines, it was a message that Colorado Sen. Ellen Roberts hoped the kids in attendance, and their peers listening via live simulcast in classrooms across the state, would embrace – perhaps even motivating them to take the chance of becoming more involved in their own local and state government.
Roberts, a Durango Republican who represents Colorado Senate District 6 covering Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray, San Juan and San Miguel counties, is the founder of the Colorado Youth Advisory Council, created in 2008 as part of her Youth Advisory Act in House Bill 08-1157 (HB 1157) in order to facilitate the expression of the voice of Colorado’s youth to the state’s elected leaders. Colorado is one of 10 states with similar organizations.
COYAC was created to give young people a voice in creating the state policies that affect them. According to the enacting legislation, the council was created “to examine, evaluate and discuss the issues, interests and needs affecting Colorado youth now and in the future and to formally advise and make recommendations to elected officials regarding those issues.”
“It’s not all about carrying legislation or weighing in on a particular bill, but learning hands-on what the process is,” Roberts said.
When Roberts (then a representative) and her cosponsors first crafted the bill in 2008, she recalled, “We felt strongly that the youth council should not be just made up of kids who were selected based on their connections, but rather based on kids with their own interest and commitment to participating in the democratic process. Diversity was a key tenet of the bill – geographic, ethnic, racial and educational.”
The 44-member council consists of one student from each of the 35 state senate districts, five at-large seats to give kids from the sprawling rural districts (such as Roberts’ own District 6) a larger presence at the table, and four legislators who serve as mentors and are non-voting members of the council.
Recent achievements of COYAC include its work to heighten awareness around the issue of teen suicide.
The original 2008 bill enacting COYAC was set to sunset this year. One of Roberts’ most satisfying accomplishments in the current legislative session was to get the bill reauthorized with strong bipartisan support for another five years.
“My personal hope in carrying the bill five years ago was that the students would be motivated, bit by the political bug and at a later age be more willing to serve on school boards and city councils, or even to run for congress,” Roberts said. “For a lot of us, it does start at an early age.”
COYAC members played a key role in Sotomayor’s appearance at the Judicial Center last week.
Chief Justice for the Colorado Supreme Court Michael Bender had approached Senator Roberts for advice about how to incorporate youth into the dedication ceremony, after Justice Sotomayor herself requested that middle-school aged kids be an integral part of the event.
Roberts suggested tasking COYAC with overseeing the selection process of a representative group of young students from across Colorado. COYAC went to work, reviewing 1,200 applications and selecting 100 students – one from each senate and house district (similar, in fact, to the method by which COYAC members themselves are selected).
COYAC members also provided assistance on the morning of the event, helping to greet the students, rounding up them into geographic groups and introducing them to their legislators prior to Sotomayor’s appearance. “They acted like big brothers and big sisters,” Roberts said. “They opened the door, literally and figuratively, to younger students to be a part of it all.”
For COYAC members, the day culminated with a private lunch with Sotomayor and the Colorado chief justices.
“Each year, the youth council is different in membership, but the consistency that I’ve so appreciated is their openness to learning and participating together in the American way of government,” Roberts wrote in her legislative column this week. “I completely expect to see some of them elected to office at all levels someday, with a keener appreciation than most of the complexities, value and responsibilities of citizen engagement.”
COYAC is currently accepting applications for next year’s council. Students must be between 14 and 19 years old and be enrolled in and attending a Colorado junior high, middle or high school, including an online school; participating in a nonpublic, home-based educational program; participating in a general equivalency degree program; or have obtained a high school or general equivalency diploma. The application deadline is May 15. Students may apply online at coyac.org.
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