On Sunday evening, Jennifer Wilson, former LWVNYS Legislative Director, presented information on how New York State Government works.
On Monday, the students toured the state Capitol and heard about the people whose faces are on those engraved stones and also about the secret of the fireplaces in the Senate Chambers. Back at the hotel, NY Assemblywoman Pat Fahy (NY District 109) talked with them about effective lobbying, how to approach legislators, make arguments and be persuasive. The students had the opportunity to role play and lobby the Assemblywoman about issues.
On the way to the Capitol, the students had a tour of the Chambers of the Court of Appeals and heard about the different levels of the judiciary in New York State. Continuing up the hill to the Capitol and Legislative Office Building, the students were directed to find their Assembly member's offices and shadow their legislator. All of the students were escorted onto the Assembly floor and introduced on the floor of the Chamber. They viewed the legislators at their desks and the Chamber in session. That evening, Elissa Kane, Albany Public Library Trustee, and Lynne Lekakis, Albany County Legislator, spoke to the students about running for office and the various activities that this would entail from gathering signatures to participating in a candidate forum. The students had many questions about the various procedures.
On Tuesday, Julia Watson, Communications Coordinator from the Alliance for Quality Education, presented information to the students on education issues and the methods they use to advocate for these issues. The topic was of particular interest to the students who asked many questions on financing education, Common Core and APPR. Liz Moran, Environmental Policy Director for NYPIRG, spoke as well, about their lobbying efforts to ensure clean air and water. The students shadowed their Senator on Tuesday and again were escorted to the floor to watch the session.
On Wednesday morning, Jim Anderson, one of the chaperones engaged the students in a discussion of what they saw in the Assembly and Senate. Much of the discussion involved questions on procedures and voting in both Chambers and the role of leadership in each Chamber. The students were each presented with a certificate for attendance at the Conference. A few students noted that they had been offered internships in the legislators' offices for the summer.
The comments from the students at the end justified the hard work:
Middle School Study Circles: For the middle school program, each school sends 12 students representing the diversity in their school. At least one faculty member accompanies each school group. The participants are divided into small groups (10 + 15) for discussion and activities related to topics including ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation and the negative effect of bullying as it relates to these topics. An effort is made to have equal representation of gender and grade level and each school in every group. The middle school study circle discussion groups are facilitated by adults who have received special training from SCED emphasizing good listening habits and respect for everyone's opinion.
High School Study Circles: The high school program invites up to 20 students from each of the seven high schools with a goal of equal representation of gender and grade level, and with as much racial diversity as possible. Each day the students view special audio-visual programs on topics of diversity and bullying and then meet in small discussion groups. Likewise, a special discussion guide was developed for the high school program. The high school groups are facilitated by high school students who have experienced the study circle program and have received at least 8 hours of special training provided by SCED.
On the second day of each study circle program, time is set aside for each participating school district to develop an "Action Plan" to take back to their school to encourage a better understanding of the diversity within their community.
SCED's hope is that through the discussions and follow-up actions, students will develop a greater understanding of and appreciation for the diversity in their communities and in the surrounding communities, which may be socially and economically different from their own. For some students attending, this will be the first face to face interaction they will have with a person of another race, religion or of a different sexual orientation. By coming together and entering into these discussions, students learn more about each other and more about bullying, a first step in implementing institutional change.
In addition to the immediate advantages offered by the program, middle school students will be able to participate in high school study circles and later as facilitators for succeeding high school study circles. These peer-led study circles are especially successful in providing an experience for development of leadership skills, not only as peer facilitators but also through designing, organizing and carrying out an action plan project in their home schools. Over the past 10 years, most schools have developed study circle "clubs" which carry over from year to year.
It is our observation that this experience is not just a one-time event; but that through the organization of action plans, students remain involved in future years with on-going programs, such as "Mix it Up" at lunch and other activities in their schools to encourage understanding of and appreciation for diversity in their school and community. Since the inception of the youth study circle programs, over 1,800 high school students and 1,050 middle school students have participated.
The adults accompanying the students at both levels join in their own study circle to hear about experiences of previous study circles and follow-up activities that have been successful in the past. For many of these educators, this is the first opportunity they have to discuss institutional racism and intolerance with their peers and learn about ways to deal with it in their personal experience.