Las Vegas Sun

April 19, 2019

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Guest column:

Leaders could learn from young people

Community, education and unity were among the concepts that our breakout groups at the Sun Youth Forum chose as a one-word summation of their experience at the event.

Our breakouts featured a diverse group of 30 high school students discussing such current events as the effects of social media on mental health, communication between teens and authority figures, if schools should monitor and address unstable family environments, and generational shifts in sexuality.

The room demonstrated the best of who we can be when we aspire to the ideals of democratic discourse: decorum, intelligence and humility.

Before delving into the conversation, we developed norms that would establish the climate and culture for our community. They included respect, disagreeing agreeably, open-mindedness and encouraging those who participated less than others to “lean in.” Throughout the day, we revisited these norms to ensure the group felt we were consistently modeling them in our behavior and our communication.

The result was a room full of high school students who provided an exemplar of how we should engage in the complex issues of our time. It was a contrast to the common and overwhelming narrative about young people — that this is a generation self-obsessed, too politically correct, and whose sensitivity woefully underprepares them for a competitive world.

Although there may be pockets of truth to these observations, they strike me as attempts to spin what are actually positive attributes that ought to be norms for conducting debate to sustain the democracy. Among the room was a generation self-aware, polite, and compassionate individuals. The irony was not lost on me that students were modeling the behavior that, in a time gone by, our leaders demonstrated for them.

To start the day, and get to know one another, I asked the participants to identify one problem they’d like to solve in their lifetime. The students, without prompting, modified the question themselves by rephrasing it to read: what is one solution you want to contribute to in your lifetime?

Their responses ranged from alleviating poverty and income inequality, improvements to public education, health care access and college affordability. Although each of these passions are areas in which our society has much progress to make, what I found most admirable wasn’t the issues themselves, it was the way they shifted the lens from hubris to humility. These students know that they cannot solve problems alone. To borrow from them, they will foster unity and honor perspective when working together to achieve the greater good.

The student elected as their room representative closed us out with a message emphasizing that our focus should be on the politics of love rather than the politics of fear. He urged his peers to show greater compassion to one another — not despite their differences, but in honor of them. We all have more in common than what we’re told separates us, he said.

Members of Congress, and Mr. President, take heed.

Alex Bybee, the Nevada state director for Teach Plus, attended the Sun Youth Forum as a student and has returned twice to serve as a moderator.