By Emerson Goering
I’ve found that social media does an amazing job of keeping track of timelines I could never have kept straight for myself. While scrolling through my Facebook feed during a time of leisure at this year’s Christian Citizenship Seminar, I stumbled upon pictures of me and other 2015 CCS participants enjoying the city life in Washington, D.C. and New York. The energy of my companions and the dynamic cities we explored together left me even more excited to learn about the issues surrounding immigration, which was the theme of CCS the year that I attended as a high school junior.
CCS helped spark my passion for social justice in an exciting and engaging way that appeals to many youth. Now, as a young adult, I’m so happy that I got to play a part in the planning of CCS 2017. This year’s topic was “Native American Rights: Food Security,” and I couldn’t be any more pleased with the level of engagement that the youth demonstrated.
The sessions were kicked off with personal stories shared by Jim and Kim Therrien and Kendra Pinto. These vivid accounts of the struggles faced by Native Americans today naturally evoked an unsettled and anxious feeling in the participants. Through the centuries-old tradition of storytelling, our youth became emotionally invested in the topic, which is the first step towards change.
While preparing for our morning meeting with the Department of Agriculture, I created some discussion starters, assuming we might see a lull in the participants’ questions. However, I was happy to find that most of my prompts weren’t needed, as CCSers found their own niche in the game of question-asking. The interest this group of students had in the meeting was so hardy that the meeting went over time by about half an hour. In fact, some students even stayed behind to continue the conversation.
After the intensive meeting at the USDA, participants spent time exploring Washington, D.C., taking in the vast amounts of museums and monuments. Folks later reconvened, bringing a new level of excitement to the table, as they planned their congressional visits. I was pleased to see such involvement from CCSers during the planning period as I helped the representatives from the different regions shape their visits. After planning, everyone was sent off to dinner at a variety of restaurants. I was able to join my home congregation’s group at my favorite neighborhood pizza place. Speaking with the students about their upcoming congressional visits transported me back to the eve of my group’s visits two years ago. While I empathized with their nerves, I was excited for everyone to voice their concerns in a more formal setting.
Later, Jerry O’Donnell was able to calm the nerves of CCSers with a session describing a bit of what they could expect from their lobbying meetings. Jerry’s insight from working in a representative’s office for many years gave him the credibility and clarity that I think many people needed.
Before CCSers were sent off to their Hill visits, Shantha Ready-Alonso further demonstrated the significance of tribal sovereignty with her morning session. As participants and advisors later ventured toward the Hill, they were a bit anxious as to how they would be received. Later that evening, an air of relief filled the room as we spent time debriefing their Hill visits.
Some groups were incredibly pleased by both the hospitality of the congressional office staffers, as well as their actual encounters with the Senators and Representative themselves. Other groups recounted the struggles they faced in trying to keep office staffers on topic. Instead of addressing the group’s questions, one pair of staffers went off on a tangent about increased opioid use nationwide.
While the mood of the meeting might have varied by office or even by person, participants were in agreement that advocating for an issue is not as intimidating as they’d expected.
In my mind, CCS 2017 was a resounding success: a group of youth gained knowledge about a topic, developed empathy for a group of people beyond themselves, and ultimately used their newfound voices while addressing our government officials to demonstrate their solidarity. I’m excited to see the long-term impact that CCS has on the youth of today, just as it has had on me.
-- Emerson Goering is a Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) worker serving with the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness.