“This is our voice”: Just Futures Youth Summit

by Sydney Boyd, project manager, Humanities in American Life

Change rarely happens with one voice. Peyton Gillespie, a high school senior at Maui Preparatory Academy, knew that he wanted to bring people’s voices together to find solutions to issues like climate crisis, political polarization, and social justice and inequality in a space that inspired confidence. Working with Hawai‘i State Representative Amy Perruso, that’s exactly the approach Gillespie took as the lead youth organizer on a virtual Why It Matters Just Futures Summit in Hawai‘i.

“You see a lot of people saying ‘we don’t bring politics up at the dinner table’” Gillespie said. “I’ve noticed a hesitancy about talking about politics…So we wanted to give the students a comfortable space to have Socratic conversations where each of their voices are heard, everybody’s on an equal playing field, they can say what they want to say no matter what their views are in a comfortable setting where people aren’t going to shoot their views down.”

On March 6, 32 participants from three islands in Hawai‘i gathered together for the three-hour summit to talk about civic education, impact, and change. Beginning with youth activist speaker Dyson Chee, the summit also included state legislators—Representatives Jeanné Kapela, Adrian Tam, Sonny Ganaden, and Perruso as well as Senators Chris Lee and Stanley Chang—and happened as a result of a partnership between the Civic Education Council and the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities. It was supported by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, which is administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

A sense of community, intention, and openness laid the foundation for the day. Organizers said they were impressed that so many youth came and stayed for the whole three hours considering all the stress young people have been under this year—feeling lonely, agonizing over tests, and worrying about school and their families. So Aiko Yamashiro, executive director of the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities, began the event by asking participants to think of an ancestor—someone who loved them and helped them make them who they are—to bring with them into the summit as a grounding practice. With their ancestors in mind, she asked everyone to put an intention into the Zoom chat, as well as a strength, a gift—or a superpower.

“We learned this insight from our wonderful Why It Matters Poetry Workshop Facilitator, Navid Najafi,” Yamashiro explained. “He asked us to name our superpowers, bring them together, and bring them to bear on problems our communities are facing. Change happens when people talk to each other, use their gifts, and move collectively.”

Gillespie said the idea behind having a youth summit was for young people, specifically, to gather and share ideas with their peers rather than have adults talking at them. So instead of adult facilitators, the philoSURFERS, a philosophy youth club from Kailua High School, led Socratic-style conversations. Gillespie said these youth-only conversations were full of energy and ideas and led to lots of exchange for follow-up and continued relationship. In the last hour, state legislators joined to answer questions and talk about the power of building community and working together. Youth and summit organizers asked them questions like “How can we make sure change is grounded in community and not profit?” and “What is the scariest thing you have ever done in your political career?”

“There are so many youth out there who are excited about civic education, who are so excited about taking on these issues and so excited about participating in a political process,” Gillespie said. “[By the end of the summit] they had confidence in being able to talk to their state legislators and say ‘hey, we have these issues, you said that you promised to be willing to listen to us, this is our voice, let’s put this into action.’”

Photo credit: Hawai’i Council for the Humanities (1); Photo credit: Dyson Chee, Just Futures Project (2)

This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.