Nebraska high school students lobby legislators in a new program—with a focus on diverse perspectives

April 11, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

Students take a selfie with Sen. Hunt
State Sen. Megan Hunt poses for a selfie with some of the student lobbyists, along with their adult lobby mentors during Lobby Day on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

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A somewhat rowdy group of teenagers walks across the street toward the Nebraska State Capitol building. They’re accompanied by a few adults, but they quickly form their own groups to review legislative bills.

The 16 high school students are dressed in their very best and listen closely to the Capitol usher to learn how they can pull state senators off the floor. They’re about to embark on their first-ever lobbying attempt.

They start off wide-eyed and soft spoken, but quickly gain their confidence as one by one, senators meet them in the Capitol Rotunda.

The students are part of the first youth lobby school run through the nonprofit Nebraska Civic Engagement Table. The program is geared toward Lincoln and Omaha students who identify as people of color, immigrants or refugees or as LGBTQIA+.

“A lot of them have had experiences with racism or sexism or xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, they’ve all experienced those things and they’re not even out of high school yet,” said program facilitator Andrew Dominguez Farias.

The 16 students were selected to participate out of about 40 applications for the program that offers transportation, a meal and a $500 stipend for their time. Dominguez Farias works with the students on how to use their life experiences to make changes in state government.

Students pose in front of the capitol building
The students pose for a photo in front of the capitol building, along with their lobbying mentors, on Wednesday, March 30, 2024. “We have so many students in Nebraska that are already so passionate about that work,” said Guadalupe Esquivel, one of the mentors. “It is just a matter of making sure that they have the actual skills, those tangible skills to participate fully.” (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

“A really big part is being like, ‘Oh, like these structures exist. And it's really hard to live within them or navigate them. But here's how you can use the discrimination that you have faced at the legislature,’” he added.

Those conversations about lived experiences and personal story telling were prominent in the six, monthly class sessions leading up to Lobby Day. During class, the students researched which bills they would tackle.

“I’m here to learn how to advocate for specific bills that I’m passionate about and like how I can get my point across to help see them changed or like help move forward,” said 16-year-old Mishcat Altahir.

Altahir’s cousin 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 said she has a very different concept of law enforcement, firearms and their interactions with Black and brown communities.

“As a student, as a person of color, and being in school, obviously I get the means for security,” she said. “But it just runs through my head every time where it's like, say, there was a situation, an encounter, would my life be in danger?”

Ishag and her peers talked about what they called the “racial element” of some legislation that they feared could negatively impact primarily Black communities. They mentioned some familiar names:

Elijah McClain.

Ralph Yarl.

Michael Brown.

Two students look at a packet of papers
Aya Ishag (left) and her cousin Mischat Altahir look for bills at their last in-class session on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. They focused on bills they felt could have negative impacts on young people, especially those of color. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

“Those names, like, they still play an impact to this day. We see multiple stories coming out every year, more hashtags, more people unfortunately lost. I think it makes government leaders realize that there's still room for improvement, you know, we're not done,” Ishag said.

MajieAhna Winfrey, 16, reflected on the makeup of state lawmakers, which she said could be one reason why some bills are lacking that consideration for impact on communities of color.

“A perspective from multiple different types of people is what is really needed to get people to really think about the effects of these bills that are going to be put into place,” she said.

Out of 49 state senators, two are Black, both are male.

Lobbying challenges

Matt Nelsen, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Miami, wrote The Color of Civics: Civic Education for a Multiracial Democracy, which explores civic education for racially marginalized groups.

“Participating in politics is habit forming. So giving young people the opportunity to actually participate, does a really important thing that is not only teaching young people about democracy, but actually giving them the opportunity to practice it,” Nelsen said.

Nelsen said Ishag and her peers’ motivation to push for legislation to avoid future cases like Michael Brown’s is an example of democracy working at its best.

“A meaningful civic education is one where students are engaging in what I call critical content, that is, narratives about how marginalized groups of people, social movements, how that contributes to democracy,” he said. “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.”

During Lobby Day, 16-year-old Caroline McDonald tried to talk to a senator about LB 1330. It would ban some diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in higher education.

“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 that they are accepted,” McDonald said.

A student listens to a state legislator
Aya Ishag lobbies a senator to oppose a bill that would allow some school officials to carry firearms on the premises. “I'm sure [lawmakers] are probably not used to working with high schoolers, and like speaking to them on a regular basis,” she said. “I think just like, getting to hear from different perspectives is really good because then it also makes them go and sit down and think, ‘Wow, what can I actually do?’” (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

She said without robust DEI programs, she believes higher education will be lacking in the state.

“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,” she countered the senator.

Nelsen said this situation doesn’t shock him. He described today’s political landscape as one in which both political parties may not be aligned with what diverse young people are advocating for. But McDonald’s interaction with the state senator may be beneficial for her in the long run.

“It's actually more meaningful for young people to feel that frustration, reflect upon that frustration, consider how they may approach that situation differently in the future, or also come to the conclusion that, it wasn't [the student] who was in the wrong, it was this elected official who was in the wrong,” he said. “And it is [the student’s] responsibility as a member of [their] community, as a citizen, to hold them accountable.”

A lobbying success

But not all students experienced a challenge during their lobbying.

Adriana Juarez Rubio quickly earned the support of state Sen. Tony Vargas. She shared with him why she feels LB 927, which would require suicide awareness and prevention training for some employees in child-placing agencies, is important.

“As someone who grew up without parents, I know how hard it is to feel like you don’t have the information, have the kind of ability to have, what you need,” she told Vargas.

Students talk to state Sen. Tony Vargas
Etta Salzman, 17, talks to state Sen. Tony Vargas about the LB 1330 on Lobby Day, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. They teamed up with other students to lobby against the bill that would prohibit some DEI efforts in higher education. (Photo by Kassidy Arena/Nebraska Public Media News)

Vargas told Juarez Rubio he would speak with the introducer of the bill, state Sen. John Fredrickson, to see if there’s anything he can do to support the bill further.

“We don't have nearly as much diversity in the legislature in terms of socio-economic or racial and ethnic diversity. And that means that the legislation we have is, is not always as rounded as it could be,” Vargas said. Vargas, son of Latino immigrants, is one of the few ethnically diverse voices in the legislature.

“The fact that we are developing our next group of potential advocates, you know, people that are going to lobby the legislature coming from those different underrepresented groups is important for addressing equity issues,” he said.

At the end of a long day of lobbying, the students gather back together to debrief.

“I don't know what impact we might have had after we left. But I already know, maybe we gave them something to think about, whether they agreed with us or not,” Aya Ishag said. “Hearing from people that they're probably not used to hearing also probably made a difference.”

The rest of the students have some complaints, but mostly laughs and positive memories, which is exactly what program facilitator Dominguez Farias hoped for.

“I don’t want them to leave this program being like, the system is broken and I can’t make a change,” he said. “I want it to be the opposite of that and recognizing that certainly some systems have barriers to entry, but how do we overcome them?”

This class of students was seen as the pilot run for Nebraska Civic Engagement Table’s Youth Lobby program. The nonprofit is a nonpartisan statewide organization that provides support and capacity building resources to nonprofits across Nebraska. It has been running adult lobby classes for three years. It will now use this cohort as a study for what to include in the next round of youth lobby school. Guadalupe Esquivel, the communications director, is also part of the youth lobby school steering committee.

“We forget that these are issues that these students are deeply immersed in,” she said. “They are every bit, if not more, impacted and affected by these issues. These students have every right and every piece of intelligence to be able to engage with these issues fully and to really work toward action and change.”

As for the students, they don’t think this will be the last time they make sure lawmakers hear their voices. They plan to make several more trips to the Capitol building on their own in the future.