Young people are speaking up in the state Legislature. Are adults listening?

Two Oregon senators are inviting young people to committee meetings, asking them to talk about the environment, child welfare and other issues 

By: - February 20, 2023 6:00 am
Young people are getting involved with policymaking this session

From left: Gabriella Cohen, 18, Audrey Bong, 17, and Maya Raphael, 18, are involved in state legislative work this session. They are seen here at Wallace Park in northwest Portland on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. (Natalie Pate)

Nearly half of the first state Senate committee on energy and environment meeting this session was spent listening to testimony from eight people – all of them in their teens or early 20s. 

An eighth grader spoke about the negative impacts of the meat industry on human health and the environment. A high schooler spoke about the conversations she and her peers have on the morality of having children as the climate crisis persists. A recent college graduate spoke about the inability to afford well-insulated, energy-efficient homes due to student loan debt and the rising costs of housing. 

Young people have served a powerful role in political and social movements throughout history – from school integration and the Vietnam War to South African apartheid and March for Our Lives.

Today, hundreds of young Oregonians – kindergarteners through college – are getting involved in issues that affect them, their peers and their futures. The environment, the state’s child welfare system, student mental health and sexual violence prevention are just starting examples.

But new in Oregon this legislative session is a growing effort by lawmakers to regularly include youth perspectives. 

State Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro
State Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, photographed here in her Salem office on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, is trying to bring in more young people to testify to lawmakers. (Natalie Pate)

This effort was first started by Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin​, D-Albany, and has since inspired Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro and chair of the Senate energy and environment committee, to do the same. They hope it becomes a wider practice. 

“It’s about accessibility and letting people know that we are a ‘citizen Legislature,’” Sollman told the Capital Chronicle. “We represent our community, and (youth) are just as much part of our community as someone who is voting age.”

Sollman and Gelser Blouin said they haven’t experienced much pushback in the Oregon Legislature, but the issue has come up in other states. In Idaho last month, for example, some lawmakers banned people under 18 from testifying in their committees unless invited by the chairperson or accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Gelser Blouin said kids know what’s going on, and the decisions elected officials make will directly impact them. She wants to ensure young people see civic engagement as something valuable and open to them. 

“I think it’s important not to call them … ‘the next generation of leaders.’ They’re leaders today,” Gelser Blouin said. “It’s not cute when they talk. It’s not performative. The kids have important things to say, and we need to stop and listen.”

See related story: How ‘a bunch of kids and people the state gave up on’ rid slavery from Oregon’s constitution

Eye-opening testimony

Gelser Blouin originally had the idea to include young people on a regular basis in testimony and when initially presenting bills to committees back in 2019. Her efforts came to fruition in the 2021 special session. 

Gelser Blouin, a mother of five and vocal advocate in the developmental disability community, said the biggest lesson she’s learned from her work is the importance of letting people tell their own stories. 

“These are folks who too often have their stories told for them,” she said. “And that’s just another way to take agency from people, even when it’s not intentional.”

Gelser Blouin recalled a student who walked miles to a committee hearing of hers in Corvallis so he could talk about access to mental health services. She’s worked with young people who had to consult attorneys to testify and who’ve navigated privacy issues to share their experiences publicly. One child spoke to lawmakers in a recorded testimony about being sent out of state for care when she was 9, being verbally and physically abused and put under chemical restraints.

Youth drawings sent the the Legislature
Young people have sent drawings and notes to state Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, as part of her campaign to include youth voices in committee hearings. (Natalie Pate)

“I can say it’s wrong to call a 9-year-old a prostitute, but to hear an 11-year-old talk about what that felt like and see how tiny and little she is and have her describe what it’s like to have bruises on her arms and feel like she can’t breathe and to cough up blood,” Gelser Blouin said, trailing off. “When an adult says it, it sounds like something that happened a long time ago, or it’s just kind of theoretical. These are the people who are really experiencing it.”

Some people have challenged Gelser Blouin about inviting young people to speak about especially troubling topics, like child abuse, saying it’s damaging or traumatic for the children to testify.

Her response? “If they’ve lived it, they should be allowed to speak it.” 

“Nobody can tell their story the way they can tell their own story,” Gelser Blouin said. She said it’s eye-opening when young people testify and their accounts differ from what was reported by adults. 

“If a policy is about someone, they need to be leading the discussion,” she said. “So, if we aren’t making space to hear from them, we can’t make good policy.”

Sollman follows suit

Sollman was on Gelser Blouin’s 2021-22 interim Senate ​Committee on Human Services, Mental Health and Recovery. She was moved by the chairwoman’s inclusion of young people. 

When she started leading the energy and environment committee in 2023, Sollman said she wanted to ensure part of the meeting was dedicated to them as well.

Students are encouraged to attend her committee in person or virtually and to submit written testimony. Interest from young people was strong at first – Sollman said students may have thought they would only have one chance to speak – but has tapered off. Still, Sollman promises the committee will hear from at least one young person at the end of every meeting.

Sollman pushed for a student representative when she served on the Hillsboro school board before her time in state office, and she worked with students across the state to ban single-use plastic bags. Her Senate profile has an entire webpage dedicated to student engagement in the Legislature. 

State Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro
State Sen. Janeen Sollman looks at drawings and notes from young people as part of her campaign to bring youth voices to the Legislature. (Natalie Pate)

After receiving letters from fourth graders in 2019 for Senate Bill 90, limiting plastic straw use only upon request, then-Rep. Sollman spoke the students’ words on the House floor. 

She’s since received at least 500 letters from students asking her to ban polystyrene, and dozens of sixth graders have sent her letters in support of this year’s House Concurrent Resolution 8, which would make rescue cats and dogs the official Oregon pet. 

“If I’m making decisions in the best interest of kids,” she said, “I need to go where they (are) and talk with them.”

Sollman said some are waiting to see how effective her youth voices initiative is. One committee colleague, she said, recently said he wasn’t sure how it would play out. But after the first meeting, he told her, “This is pretty cool.”

“More and more, people are opening up,” Sollman said, “and I think that’s probably … because these students are being more vocal on social media and people can see that they (have) something to offer.”

Sexual violence prevention work

In addition to committee testimony, young people are finding other ways to get involved in statewide legislation.

Audrey Bong, 17, was volunteering for the 24-hour crisis hotline YouthLine when she got an all-too-common call. A teen was in distress after someone leaked their nude photographs – and they had no idea what to do.

The experience prompted Bong to start working with fellow high school seniors Maya Raphael and Gabriella Cohen on an initiative to prevent such abuse from happening in the future.

“Regardless of the school you go to, there is always talk about sexual violence,” Bong said. “We’re just trying to generate a better awareness and expectation for how you should handle sexual violence as a youth.” 

All three Portland-area students previously interned at the Capitol, and they are among the five young people leading the Youth Interpersonal Violence Prevention Coalition, which partners with organizations and state agencies to create funding and support for sexual violence prevention education in Oregon schools. 

Regardless of the school you go to, there is always talk about sexual violence. We’re just trying to generate a better awareness and expectation for how you should handle sexual violence as a youth.

– Audrey Bong, 17, senior at Riverdale High School in Portland

They’re involved in a proposal this session that’s set to go before the Senate education and joint ways and means committees. The proposal, Senate Bill 604, would require the Oregon Department of Education to establish a $20 million grant for school districts to carry out the child sexual abuse prevention program known as Erin’s Law. Initially passed in Illinois a decade ago, the law mandates sexual abuse prevention instruction now in 38 states. 

Oregon’s version of the law was passed in 2015 via Senate Bill 856. It requires students to receive a minimum of four lessons per year on topics such as child sex abuse, relationships and online communications.

Any trained counselor, teacher or other educator can teach the lessons, according to the state law. Cohen, 18, said this is meant to ensure students can talk about these issues with any adult they feel comfortable with at their school, though that doesn’t always work.

“These teachers are very poorly equipped to deal with these kinds of situations when they’re brought forward by students,” Cohen said. Raphael, 18, agreed, saying the lessons are often unengaging and students don’t always take them seriously. 

“It creates a really unsafe environment for students to (go) to teachers who maybe don’t even seem interested in teaching the Erin’s Law lessons,” Cohen said. Ideally, she added, each school would have trained professionals besides teachers to talk to students.

These teachers are very poorly equipped to deal with these kinds of situations when they're brought forward by students.

– Gabrielle Cohen, 18, senior at Sunset High School in Beaverton

The three leaders said there’s also a lack of statewide resources for schools and little-to-no oversight holding districts accountable. If passed, the bill would add a second full-time employee to the Oregon Department of Education to oversee the Erin’s Law grant and make sure schools comply. 

“Sex education is abuse prevention work. And prevention work is something that often is hard to get passed because you can’t put a number on the amount of people that you’ve saved from getting sexually assaulted,” Cohen said. “This is root-cause work that I think is ignored a lot of the time.”

The three encourage other youth to get involved in issues they’re passionate about, even if it’s out of their comfort zone. They said there are more resources available than they may know and chances are, if they’re experiencing something, others are too. 

“You don’t have to be involved on a policy level,” Raphael said. “Obviously, that’s great, but even the conversations you have (with your peers) will have a ripple effect.” 

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Natalie Pate
Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She covered education for the Statesman Journal for more than seven years and was the co-founder and lead of the Salem Storytellers Project. She was an Investigative Reporters and Editors Fellow in 2021 and remains an IRE mentor and member of the Education Writers Association. She was named a 2022 EWA Reporting Fellow and published an in-depth series that summer on prison literacy programs. She is a graduate of Willamette University, where she majored in politics and French. Find her on Twitter @NataliePateGwin.