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A Wednesday panel at the Mackinac Policy Conference highlighted the influence of young people in Michigan’s political, social and economic environments, while also calling attention to issues most pressing to Generation Z.
Moderator Angelique Power, CEO of the Detroit-based grantmaking organization the Skillman Foundation, was joined on the panel by youth education activist Imani Harris, Black Lives Matter in All Capacities Co-Founder Evamelo Oleita and Michigan House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit).
Power opened the panel discussion by emphasizing the role of Gen Z in today’s public policy. She said that the generation’s diversity would be an asset in future policymaking.
“They are intersectional in their identities, and also in their analysis of what our issues are, and in their proposals for solutions to these problems,” Power said. “They are the largest generation alive – over a quarter of the U.S. population, over a third of the world population.”
Both of the youth speakers on the panel represented Michigan social justice organizations – Harris serves as the communications lead for 482Forward, an education justice organization dedicated to Detroit student success, and Oleita is also a member of the Skillman Foundation’s President’s Youth Council.
Oleita described how she and her friends were motivated to start Black Lives Matter in All Capacities after learning about the detainment of Grace, a Pontiac student who was put in a juvenile detention center for failing to complete online school assignments in 2020.
“We did an overnight occupation outside the detention center where she was being detained, and at 16 and 17 years old, that was really scary,” Oleita said. “And I still don’t know how we did it, but the following morning Grace was released. And we cried, we celebrated, but we understood that Grace being released was only such a small part of this journey.”
Oleita said that Grace’s story introduced her to the issue of criminalization of Black girls in Michigan schools, and that she’s been working since then on education justice issues.
Harris’s focus on education inequity came at a young age, when she said she began noticing teachers at her Detroit high school having to work without pay and increasing vacancies in her school’s staff. The experience inspired her to contact her elected officials and start speaking about what she was seeing at school.
“I was just seeing my experience around me and not feeling like it was being reflected in the conversation,” Harris said. “So instead of trying to tell people how I felt on a smaller scale, I wrote my first op-ed, and it went really far.”
Tate noted that the forthcoming state budget would include several measures relating to equitable funding for Michigan schools, which Power said is a key issue for Gen Z voters. He said that education issues, including special education funding, mental health support and free and reduced lunch and breakfast would all be addressed by the currently passed House version of the budget.
“I think it points us in the right direction,” Tate said. “But I think there’s certainly more that we need to do there.”
Harris’ and Oleita’s passion for organizing isn’t uncommon for members of Gen Z. Power said that in areas where Michigan lags behind on voter turnout and engagement, Gen Z is showing up.
“Not only are young people concerned with public policy, they are making some pretty big gains, including securing 150 million and mental health funding for schools,” Power said. “And Michigan Gen Zers led the nation in youth voter turnout in 2022.”
Tate said that as a legislator he’s seen the impact of that turnout firsthand, whether in the power of a Gen Z voting bloc in Michigan or new members of the legislature that are the youngest in state history, but that there’s still a way to go on fully integrating young people into the policymaking process.
“I think the work that Gen Z members have been doing and been able to advocate for is starting to get reflected, but I think there’s certainly more throughout our process,” Tate said. “I think that starts with individual members really engaging in their districts and then in their communities.”
Harris said that intergenerational conversations are a key part of making young people feel heard and that they can be active participants in public policy, but that they have to be conducted with trust and understanding. She said it’s important to set boundaries and expectations before forming an intergenerational relationship.
“They might be transactional sometimes, or they might feel like tokenism even though that’s not the intention,” Harris said. “Because that base conversation was not had about, ‘What’s our goals; what’s our vision? What’s our dream for this?’”
The panelists also discussed education solutions like the weighted funding formula, which would aim to direct state per-pupil funds in higher concentration to school districts classified as higher-need, as well as a pressing question for Michigan’s aging population: How will the state retain its young people as they grow up?
How are we caring for our young people? Are we putting the same amount of effort and love that we put into so many other things in our society back into the most valuable assets, which are our youth?
– Black Lives Matter in All Capacities Co-Founder Evamelo Oleita
Harris moved back to Detroit upon her graduation from Northwestern University, but Oleita, a freshman at Michigan State University, isn’t sure yet whether she’ll remain in Michigan after graduation. She faces the same decision that many young Michiganders are: Move out of state to pursue more opportunity, or try to find it here at home?
“I want to stay but I don’t know if I will,” Oleita said. “And if I do stay it’ll definitely be because of the people, especially in Detroit.”
Oleita said that transportation access is a key factor in her decision on where to put down roots post-grad.
“You look at places like New York, where they have reliable and accessible transportation everywhere,” Oleita said. “I think it’s really interesting that we call ourselves the home of the Motor City, but we don’t have reliable transportation everywhere.”
Both Harris and Oleita agreed that to retain young people, Michigan needs to refocus its priorities.
“How are we caring for our young people?” Oleita said. “Are we putting the same amount of effort and love that we put into so many other things in our society back into the most valuable assets, which are our youth?”
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