Dozens of youth from Minnesota, Northern Plains Conferences visit D.C. for advocacy, immersive experience
The group and their chaperones visited museums and monuments, received advocacy training from the UCC’s D.C. Office and spent a lobby day meeting with all 13 congresspersons from their home states of Minnesota and North Dakota.
They also learned about the many areas of UCC engagement on topics such as reproductive justice, democracy and the Our Faith Our Vote campaign, the Climate Hope Cards campaign, the Just Peace designation for congregations and more.
“There are so many instances today where youth become discouraged because we aren’t always sure how to make our voices heard,” said trip participant Kate Dean, 15, from Peace UCC in Duluth, Minn. “Being able to speak to senators and congressional staff was a unique opportunity that I never thought I’d have. This trip to Washington, D.C., was a reminder of how powerful our voices are, especially when we go directly to the people in positions of power.”
“Our vision for our youth immersion experiences is to offer different activities over multiple years for youth to experience and ‘try on’ various skills, practices and ways of engaging and expressing their faith in the world,” explained the Rev. Kevin Brown, Associate Conference Minister of the Minnesota Conference. “This summer’s trip to Washington, D.C., focused on faith-based advocacy and was designed to provide multiple opportunities for youth to give voice to their passion, commitments, fears, outrage and hope as they engage in open and respectful dialogue with our political leaders.
“These experiences can be powerfully formative for young people discerning their unique gifts and voices.”
Addressing gun violence, climate crisis
A full day of advocacy training led up to a lobby day where the young people brought two legislative “asks” to their representatives and senators.
The first ask was related to gun safety legislation: the youth asked for a reinstating of the ban on assault weapons, and for stronger, more robust background check legislation.
The second ask was related to the farm bill: the youth requested their elected leaders support a farm bill that prioritizes equity, sustainability and well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.
Specifically, the youth, with guidance from the D.C. Office, asked Congress to:
- Strengthen policies and programs that promote conservation, adapt to and mitigate climate change and protect our natural resources;
- Protect, expand and strengthen programs like SNAP that reduce hunger, address food insecurity and improve nutrition in the United States;
- Support the RESTORE Act to end the drug felony ban on receiving SNAP benefits;
- And provide a fair and effective farm safety net that allows farmers, farmworkers and producers around the United States and the world to earn enough for economically sustainable livelihoods and to ensure that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and other socially disadvantaged farmers have equitable access to these programs to remedy historic inequities and discrimination.
“When meeting with members of Congress, the youth were prepared, poised and achingly vulnerable with the stories they shared about how their lives are affected by the epidemic of gun violence and the climate crisis,” Brown said. “They engaged in respectful conversation with their members of Congress, offering gratitude for past support and demanding accountability from members. The youth were bold in speaking truth to power about creating a safer and more just world for them and future generations.”
‘Every young person should have the opportunity’
The “asks” were determined by preliminary meetings with the youth and the D.C. Office to discuss topics of importance to them. Ending gun violence and environmental justice were two issues that arose as being of particular importance.
“The youth brought such energy and passion as they worked with our staff on issues of gun violence, the farm bill and how to raise their voices as faithful advocates,” said the Rev. Michael Neuroth, director of the D.C. Office.
All together, the group had 13 Capitol Hill meetings with all four senators and nine representatives from Minnesota and North Dakota:
- Sens. Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven of North Dakota, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota
- Minnesota Reps. Brad Finstad, Angie Craig, Dean Phillips, Betty McCollum, Ilhan Omar, Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber, and North Dakota Rep. Kelly Armstrong
Sometimes the groups were so large that they had to meet in the hallways or conference rooms because the youth didn’t all fit in the office.
“This was an amazing experience I will certainly never forget,” said Zelalem Oestreich, 15, from Peace UCC. “I got to see kids use their voice to create change. I saw people change their viewpoints, and I felt changed. This was a great experience that every young person should have the opportunity to do.”
Making a difference
Adults overseeing the visit praised the youth for their engagement in the program.
“During their meetings with U.S. representatives and senators, these young leaders exhibited remarkable poise as they shared personal stories of pain and heartache and called on policymakers to really listen and take tangible action in support of stronger legislation on their issues,” Neuroth said. “We as a church should all be incredibly proud of how these young leaders represented themselves, their congregations and our UCC values on Capitol Hill this week.”
Brown was equally impressed with the young people and their ability to advocate for what mattered to them.
“The experience exceeded my expectations and hopes,” he said. “Our youth persevered through long days of preparation and created a collaborative and supportive community that allowed space for a variety of voices and experiences to be shared.”
“It was such an honor to work with them, and I know their voice and presence made a difference,” said Neuroth.
Maic D’Agostino contributed to this story.
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