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Nebraska high school students learn how to channel their beliefs into action

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ten years after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, students in Missouri's neighboring state are using his story as motivation in their state's capital. Nebraska Public Media's Kassidy Arena reports how participants in a youth lobby school are using their own lived experiences to push for legislation.

KASSIDY ARENA, BYLINE: A group of high school students, dressed in their very best, pull state senators off the floor of the legislature. It's their first attempt at lobbying.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: We appreciate how you represented us.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yes, thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: ...Your support in closing...

ARENA: The students are part of the first youth lobby school in the state, run through the nonprofit Nebraska Civic Engagement Table. The program is geared toward students who identify as people of color, immigrants or refugees or as LGBTQ+. Andrew Dominguez Farias is the program facilitator.

ANDREW DOMINGUEZ FARIAS: A lot of them have had experiences with racism or sexism or xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia. They've all experienced those things.

ARENA: Dominguez Farias works with the students to use these experiences to make changes in state government.

DOMINGUEZ FARIAS: Here is how you can use the discrimination that you have faced at the legislature.

ARENA: In the 6 classes leading up to Lobby Day, the students researched which bills they would tackle. Aya Ishag chose to lobby against legislation that would allow some school officials to carry guns on the premises. As a student of color, she says she has a very different concept of law enforcement and firearms.

AYA ISHAG: Obviously, I get the means for security, but in my head, it just runs through my head every time where it's like - say there was a situation, an encounter. Would my life be in, you know, danger?

ARENA: Ishag and her peers talked about what they call the racial element of some proposed bills they feared could negatively impact Black communities. The students mentioned familiar names - Elijah McClain, Ralph Yarl, Michael Brown.

ISHAG: Those names - like, they still play an impact to this day. We see multiple stories, you know, more hashtags, more people unfortunately lost.

ARENA: University of Miami political scientist Matt Nelsen studies civic education for racially marginalized groups. Nelsen says Ishag's motivation to push for legislation in honor of those names is an example of democracy working.

MATT NELSEN: Knowledge about these events can be politically mobilizing and politically empowering for groups of people who may otherwise lack access to the important resources that actually makes participation easier for a lot of people.

ARENA: But in a state with only two Black lawmakers, both male, the students realized there was a need for diverse perspectives when creating bills. Sixteen-year-old Caroline McDonald tried speaking with a senator about a bill that would ban some diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, or DEI, in higher education.

CAROLINE MCDONALD: A lot of it was just a lot of tone deafness, a lot of not trying to hear out a central point that we were trying to get out. Diversity is inclusion. As a Black woman in America, I feel like diversity is important and that we need to teach people they are accepted.

ARENA: She says without robust DEI programs, she believes education will be lacking in the state.

MCDONALD: It's not teaching people that they're oppressed. It's teaching about the problems in our system and pointing it out as it is.

ARENA: At the end of a long day of lobbying, the students have some complaints but mostly laughs and positive memories, which is exactly what Dominguez Farias hoped for.

DOMINGUEZ FARIAS: I don't want them to leave this program being like, the system is broken, and I can't, you know, make a change. Like, I want it to be the opposite of that - is recognizing that, certainly, some systems have barriers to entry, but how do we overcome them?

ARENA: As for the students, they plan to make several more trips to the Capitol building to lobby on their own. For NPR News, I'm Kassidy Arena, Nebraska.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: April 5, 2024 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier introduction to this report referred to the murder of Michael Brown. The police officer who shot and killed Brown was never charged with a crime.
Kassidy Arena