In spite of an almost empty Senate chamber, the Legislative Youth Advisory Council drove a dynamic town hall meeting Wednesday centered on challenges and opportunities for the territory’s youth.
The LYAC was created through the passage of Bill No. 29-0102 – sponsored by Sens. Terrence “Positive” Nelson and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly to get the youth’s input on issues that affect their lives.
Of the 14 council members sworn in in December 2013, nine were present at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Building for Wednesday’s meeting, the first in a series of three scheduled LYAC town hall meetings territorywide.
Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation Commissioner St. Clair Williams enumerated youth summer programs throughout the territory that began June 30. These include 13 summer sports camps, mostly on St. Thomas and St. Croix, as well as 33 afterschool programs sponsored in collaboration with various government agencies and community organizations.
When asked by council member Jordan Thomas if information on the department’s summer programs reaches enough young people, Williams admitted no.
“I really don’t feel that it is, and we have done various things to try to do that,” said Williams. “I think on the whole, a lot of the positive things that the youth are doing in the community are not really getting out to the public, even with regards to sports, where our youth are really excelling.”
Council member Clemrick Bryan raised the topic of lowering the voting age, giving young people the chance to participate in local politics before they head off-island for college.
“My idea is to get them involved here now, while they’re in school, while they’re being educated. Then they’ll have a reason to stay and better the community,” said Bryan.
Elections Deputy Supervisor Genevieve Whitaker said that while lowering the voting age lies in the purview of the Legislature, the council should do research on the voting age situation in other places and to study the possible impacts of making such a change.
Youth Rehabilitation Center Superintendent Evril Powell said she hoped the youth council could help create more preventive measures that would stem the flow of youth offenders into Youth Rehab.
A bulk of questions were directed at Scott Bradley, program director of My Brother’s Workshop and head organizer of the Youth Development Group, who spoke on the challenges of serving at-risk and high-risk youth between the ages of 16 to 24.
According to Bradley, while My Brother’s Workshop successfully served some 385 youth in the last seven years, limited resources still meant a long waiting list of applicants numbering in the hundreds.
“Unfortunately there’s one less on that waiting list,” he shared. “We lost one over the weekend.”
Kidscope Inc. Executive Director Dilsa Capdeville painted a similar scenario, saying her organization ended up having to reduce its workweek by two days because of dwindling government appropriation and private funding.
When asked by council member Kevin Dixon what is needed to shrink the waiting list, Bradley said, in addition to increased resources, interagency collaboration and communication could also make them more efficient.
“Coming together with agencies has actually given us the ability, even without the additional funding, to double what we can do because we’re sharing resources,” explained Bradley. “With additional resources, we can do more, but with partnering and working together, we can do more as well.”
Dixon also asked if the Youth Development Group headed by Bradley engages young people in seeking solutions, referencing his own involvement in different boards and associations at the University of the Virgin islands, which he said was “critical” in making an impact.
Bradley responded that one of the key components of the group was a committee comprised of youth.
The council also heard testimony from Assistant Education Commissioner Sarah Mahurt on the pros and cons of allowing students to use their cellphones in schools, a proposal put forward by council member Ke’Shawn Lewis.
According to Mahurt, the education officials involved in making this decision were just as divided as the council members.
“I am for it. You can use cellphones for millions of productive reasons, but we overcome all positive reasons with positive things,” said Lewis, adding that the Education Department can always impose limits on where the cellphones can be used and which websites they can access using the schools’ Internet systems.
“We should be managing technology, and not technology managing us,” argued council vice chairman Yohance Henley, echoing some of his colleagues sentiments that students can learn without relying too much on technology.
Council members also inquired on the department’s policy regarding the confiscation of cellphones, and discovered that incidents involving cellphones in schools fall into preset disciplinary categories that do not specify cellphones were involved.
The testifiers praised the council members for their insightful questions and reminded them that they were in an ideal position to make a difference.
“On many different levels, it’s recognized that you are going to serve a very important role in decision making,” said Bradley.
Present in Senate chambers were Bryan, Dixon, Thomas, Lewis, Henley, Cyana Berkitt, Shaulia Todman, Gleason Thompson and Zion James.
The LYAC’s next town hall meeting is scheduled on Aug. 5 at the Legislative Conference Room on St. John.