This year’s Youth Legislative Days took place over Zoom. From Feb. 6-8, young people from all over Nebraska had the opportunity to make their voices heard, network, and learn about our legislative system.
One of the most impactful parts of this event included giving young leaders the opportunity to come together and review current legislative bills. Then, after deciding which bills they felt most strongly about, the attendants broke into groups, researched their viewpoints, and practiced presenting their cases for the state senators at the Senator’s Luncheon.
From there, participants met with Governor Ricketts and Judge Riko Bishop from the Nebraska Court of Appeals.
The young leaders who serve on GYAC are chosen by Governor Ricketts through an application process. The GYAC is comprised of Nebraskans between the ages of 14 and 19 who want to remain informed and abreast to hot-button issues that concern youth and young adults. Some of these topics of interest include foster care, drug and alcohol abuse, careers, and education.
CYI members were among those who attended this event. Together, these young people from CYI and GYAC met with Governor Ricketts biannually and are selected to represent a spectrum of backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences. CYI is Nebraska Children’s older youth initiative.
CYI offers supports and services to young people between ages 14-26 who have experienced child welfare, the juvenile justice or probation systems, homelessness, or human trafficking. Young people are encouraged to participate in leadership opportunities such as Youth Legislative Days, and may be eligible for other supports including central navigation, coaching, and financial literacy.
Lincoln Arneal, Nebraska Children’s Director of Leadership and Engagement, said that adapting to Zoom was a new process but that overall, the event was a success.
“This year’s Legislative Days was challenging because we were not all in the same room, but the young people still were actively engaged, learned about the legislative process, and found ways to have their voices heard,” Lincoln said.
Lincoln said that he was particularly impressed by the way the young leaders worked together over Zoom.
“I’m proud of the way they collaborated virtually to learn about bills and present their ideas to our elected officials on matters important to them,” he said.
Among the bills that the young people chose to support or challenge included LB87, which proposes mental health first-aid training for school districts and to change provisions of lottery funds.
The groups also presented on LB110, which relates to changing and providing the duties relating to law enforcement’s use of force, and LB472, which requires law enforcement officers to intervene and implement policies concerning excessive force. Senator Pansing Brooks, who originally introduced the bill, congratulated the young people on work they’d done and encouraged the group to speak with legislators.
Other groups presented on LB188, which proposes that Nebraska adopt the Second Amendment Preservation Act, and LB428, which proposes that young people in juvenile detention centers can receive the same educational opportunities offered in public schools.
Other compelling moments included when the young people met virtually with Governor Ricketts, who discussed some of the latest developments concerning the vaccine, pandemic, and testing, in particular, the 7-pillared plan to address the pandemic. The leaders then presented Governor Ricketts with their bills.
When a group of young people presented LB87 to the governor, he paid them encouragement, saying, “One of the things we have to do generally in our country is change what has in the past been a stigma associated with mental health, and put it on par with physical health.”
The senators and aides in attendance at the Senators’ Luncheon included Myron Dorn, Machalea Cavanaugh, Jen Day, Ray Aguilar, Wendy DeBoer, Patty Pansing Brooks, Dee Austin – Aide for Sen. Blood, Alex Brechbill – Aide for Sen. Gragert, Grace Buttermore – Aide for Sen. Palhs, Lisa Johns – Aide for Sen. Arch, and Director Stephanie Beasley from Children and Family Services.
The young people who presented the bills for the senators were glad to engage in agreement and dissent alike.
“[Legislative Days] was a good, memorable experience, especially to see other youth,” Autumn Yoder said. I like debating and to hear both sides. It’s good to listen to everyone, as people need to be heard.”
Autumn added that disagreement is necessary for change. “Sometimes, people can have different opinions, but we can sit here and discuss those differences,” she said.
Sam Rosa said one particularly memorable moment was when he received a positive response from Senator Aguilar. When Sam’s group presented in favor of LB188, Senator Aguilar expressed agreement, stating that firearm restrictions may only affect law-abiding citizens.
“It was great to receive vocal support from Senator Aguilar for the presentation and to find common interests with people,” Sam said.
Sam went on to say, however, that he wasn’t just seeking common interests but healthy disagreements as well.
“It’s nice to show our opinions,” Eva Burklund said. “We can’t do that otherwise without having to go down to Lincoln and interact. Legislation is really important. We should focus more on it.”
Cornelius Levering, Welfare Program Coordinator at Nebraska Appleseed, has experienced the foster care system and is an advocate for young voices. Cornelius said he spent a memorable day meeting and speaking with his fellow leaders.
“I was just there for one day, but that day was fun and exhilarating,” he said. “I spoke to youth about the legislative process and how a bill is introduced or can be killed in committee, as well as [about] the three different levels of debate: general file, select file, and lastly, final reading.”
Cornelius said he had a chance to flex his public speaking muscles.
“It was my first time talking about that process to 50 young adults, and they seemed to be impressed with my public speaking ‘virtually.’ So, I have to give myself a pat on the back for that,” he said.
But beyond feeling empowered by his ability to engage a large audience, Cornelius said he experienced other impactful moments.
“I also used [that] moment as a [time] to inspire young adults and youth – I use that word interchangeably out of respect – to advocate and to keep their chin up even if the bill doesn’t make it through.”
Cornelius said that in addition to instilling resiliency in his fellow leaders, he had a good time while being amazed at how much the young people already knew about legislation.
Cornelius said the most fun was playing a game of Kahoot in which he and his peers answered trivia questions related to the legislative process. “There were questions like, ‘What time [constraints] are you limited to when speaking before the committees?’” he said.
Cornelius said he was impressed by the how much legislative trivia his cohort knew.
“You will be permitted 3-5 minutes [before the committee], generally speaking,” he said. Cornelius said that although he advanced in the game, several youth and young adults managed to beat him. And he said that was the best part.
“The youth are knowledgeable and quick, but if they’re beating me at what I do, we must be doing something right; [that] is my philosophy.”