Tennessee Students Advocate at the State Capitol
At the Tennessee State Capitol, a group of high school and college students representing the EmpowerED initiative at Ed Trust – Tennessee recently had the opportunity to lobby priority bills that would affect the state’s more than 1 million students. Meeting with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, they voiced their opinions and brought their lived experiences to elucidate difficult conversations. Here is their dispatch from Nashville:
As we walked the halls of the State Capitol, there was an air of anxiousness because it was a first-time experience for most of us. Trying to find our voice in conversations with adults who were significantly older and above us, whose title, stature, and reputation had already been established by their elected office, was intimidating. We hoped and expected to feel safe and welcomed walking on the marble floors of the people’s house. However, we became more familiar with an environment that initially felt foreign, even hostile, at times, but being in community with other supportive and like-minded advocates was powerful. Many people were cordial, welcomed our input, and encouraged us to be the youth advocates for our continuously evolving world.
The legislative meetings brought out heavy emotions, considering how many of the issues discussed — mental health, gun violence, school funding, etc. — were deeply personal and impactful. For many of us, it was disheartening having to maintain “decorum” amid conversations that directly attacked our personal stories and identities. For example, in a meeting with a state senator, when asked about his stance on a bill that restricted implicit bias training, he instead commented on how the complexion of one of our Black students was “lighter” than his grandson’s. His purpose was to explain how he was “for equality” — but in the end, he failed to answer the question.
As we attended committee hearings, we were disappointed, even outraged, witnessing several White legislators who couldn’t differentiate between race and ethnicity, going as far as arguing with their colleagues of color on a bill regarding minority scholarships.
Despite the hardships we faced, our day at the State Capitol was still empowering and liberating. We learned about the stances of Tennessee representatives, both Democrats and Republicans. The experience helped us connect with one another even further and allowed us to collectively share every emotion. Meeting with certain legislators gave us hope that there are people in office who share our frustrations and are actively fighting for our rights.
Reflecting on our experiences, here are four of our takeaways for advocates of all ages:
Think globally but act locally
Become informed on legislation that is being passed on topics you care about — from climate change to gun violence. Regardless of the issue, we, the upcoming generations, will be the ones to take the mantle and tackle the world’s issues. As Gen Z is now reaching voting age, we can educate our peers and inspire others to engage in local politics through a tool as simple as our own voices.
Follow local bills and legislators
Your local representatives are sponsoring bills, with or without you. So, knowing what’s on their agenda is an accessible and effective method of developing your political knowledge. Stay aware of important issues close to home since these lawmakers are supposed to represent you. To stay up to date on the latest education bills filed in Tennessee, you can check our legislative bill tracker and sign up for our legislative newsletters!
Make sure you’re heard
There are numerous ways to project your voice to encourage the growth of youth engagement in local and state advocacy. Schedulinglegislative appointments with state representatives and senators allows you, as a student, to express how potential bills would impact your school environment. Though it sounds intimidating, the Capitol is still the People’s House. You belong there, and your interests should matter the most in that space. Demand to be heard. Just like the thousands of young Tennesseans who inundated the State Capitol to protest for stricter gun control laws, the youth across the nation can be just as influential.
In the gruff words of a Tennessee state senator, if you want progressive change, if you don’t like who’s representing you, then vote them out. No state can solve 2023’s problems with 1970’s solutions. Youth deserve a seat at the table where the decisions about our future are at stake, and we intend to continue showing up and raising our voices — even more so at the ballot box.
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Written by the League Leaders, a group of students in high school and college from across Tennessee that spearhead The EmpowerED Network, The Education Trust-Tennessee’s youth voice initiative that seeks to expand educational access and equity through direct advocacy: Njwi Achoh, Trey Cunningham, Ivy Enyenihi, Malik George, Malachi George, Blessyn Nkrumah, Kaya Phillips, Varahi Prashant, Mark Schaffler, Jennifer Serrano, Salina Shamsuddin, and Kaleb Sy