Seated around tables in a U-shape with microphones and remote voting devices, discussing Alaska’s hot-button issues with confidence, it wouldn’t be a big surprise if this group were the Alaska State Legislature. In 10 or 20 years.
The Conference of Young Alaskans, modeled after the Alaska Constitutional Convention of 1955, brought together 55 delegates, ages 16 to 25 (plus 15-year-old Signe Engle of Thorne Bay, the Katie Hurley Distinguished Chief Clerk), from 28 different communities, including Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks, but as distant and obscure as Red Devil (feel free to take a moment and check a map).
This is the third conference, put on by the Institute of the North, with previous conferences in 2006, the 50-year anniversary of the ratification of Alaska’s constitution, and 2009, the 50-year anniversary of Alaska’s statehood. This year’s delegates represent more communities than in years past, and while there is no major historical event to mold their discussion, there is an air of excitement and an overarching theme, “The north is the future,” and a focus on “our place in Alaska; Alaska’s place in the world.”
The five themes being discussed at this year’s conference, which were submitted by all applicants and narrowed down to the top five, were Economic Resilience and Fiscal Policy, Education and Workforce Development, Energy and Power, Natural Resources and the Environment, and Ilakuyulluta – a Yup’ik word which means living harmoniously with oneself and others, according to steering committee co-head Terin Porter. The steering committee consists of past participants who have taken what they learned in previous conferences to heart and are excited to facilitate discussions with the current delegates
Porter exudes positivity, whether she is leading an energizer exercise or talking enthusiastically about the different themes or her past participation in COYA as a 2006 delegate and two time steering committee member. Her counterpart, Galen Pospisil, is everything you’d expect of a two-time COYA delegate and current steering committee member. They have both “aged out” but believe strongly in the conference as a forum for young people to gain and provide perspective.
“It’s nice to see young people so engaged, so informed, so committed to bettering their community and their state,” Porter said.
“The delegates are well informed,” Porter explains, “They know how Alaska relates in the global perspective, while also really focusing… The state is huge, you know, physically, so we have a lot of issues and differences and challenges to overcome within our own state.”
Pospisil, who facilitates the Energy and Power group, commented on delegates’ awareness of some major policy issues.
“They have an awareness of how connected Alaska is to the rest of the world in terms of our dependence on oil revenues for our state government.”
While there is the acknowledgement that Alaska relies on oil, Pospisil also noted the delegates showed interest in how renewable energy will play a role in the state’s own energy needs and its economy, “making sure we have something to offer the global economy.”
Elise Sorum-Birk, a Juneau resident who was born and raised in Valdez and also spent time in Fairbanks, participated in the Education and Workforce Development group, which fits with her current position working at the Juneau Montessori School. She described a desire to be part of something that affects change as motivation for her participation in two COYA conferences, as well as the Forum of Young Alaskans in 2009.
“It’s eye-opening and in-depth,” Sorum-Birk said of the process. “There’s a lot that you have to go through, kind of wade through, and it’s a little bit challenging to make sure you can put things in a concise manner and at the same time get everyone’s views across and address important issues.”
Porter and Pospisil said the schedule is rigorous. The 55 delegates meet for just four days, discussing themes and deciding on goals and action items.
Sorum-Birk also explained they are “looking to the next 50 years in Alaska, envisioning what we want Alaska to be like in 50 years, what kind of Alaska we want to pass down to our children. Some things get done within the three years’ time (between conferences) and some things are more broad and overarching.”
Born and raised in Ketchikan and currently living in Juneau, Beau Poppen-Abajian is very interested in policy and also seems to provide some comic relief at the conference.
“I’ve enjoyed many aspects (of the conference) — including the catered food. Probably my favorite would be what is taking place now – the large group discussion. It’s neat to see people open up, especially with such a large group. You get to see ideas that people may not have been aware of.”
Porter, who was facilitated the Ilakuyulluta discussions, mentioned that a number of serious issues were breached in the environment; she was impressed with the courage of a young woman who spoke about sexual assault and the way the group responded.
Poppen-Abajian was one of a number of participants, present and past, who has worked as staff for the legislature. He describes the dialog at the conference as “a much more informal process than the process that happens in the legislature, but (he thinks) that’s great and it really opens it up for people to share their experiences.”
The delegates cover a wide range of topics — each of the aforementioned five themes encompassed 10 subcategories and delegates voted on their top three choices of those subcategories to guide their goal-making process and the creation of action items.
Another impressive feat for the group of delegates, representing such a wide swathe of Alaskan communities and culture, is how well the group worked together.
Porter spoke enthusiastically about how the group, dealing with a packed agenda and tough timeline, worked through frustrations, worked as a team and remained respectful.
Sorum-Birk also spoke very positively about the conference, describing it as “a collaborative process” and touting its nonpartisan nature.
All agreed that it was one of the most effective ways of having their voices heard as young Alaskans that they had experienced. People had varying opinions of how easy or difficult it was to be heard or of how seriously they were taken individually, but the consensus seemed to be that COYA provided a singular voice for the delegates from across the state.
Nils Andreassen, managing director of the Institute of the North, the organization that puts on COYA, said the 2009 COYA delegates sent a smaller delegation to Juneau during session.
“(The delegation) met with about half the legislature… a number of commissioners, the governor’s office (and) the lieutenant governor, and not only were they appreciative of the process and supportive of young leaders in general – a number of them, quite a few of them, including a commissioner, read the entire report, circled the ones they agreed with, starred the ones they were going to do something about, and had comments about everything else.”
Sorum-Birk noted that they had great access to Alaska’s leaders, some of whom spoke at the conference, some of whom joined them for dinner.
Porter feels there is a correlation between COYA’s first conference in 2006 and the receptiveness of leadership to the issues young Alaskans found important.
Even as many feel their voices are being heard more clearly and that they are being taken more seriously, some COYA delegates have taken a past action item very seriously and have made an effort to become real community leaders themselves.
According to both Andreassen and Porter, a number of past delegates have gone on to some real leadership roles, something Porter considers proof of goals and action items being met in the short time between conferences.
COYA 2006 delegate Tiffany Zulkosky, who graduated from Bethel Regional High School in 2002, became mayor of Bethel in 2008 before accepting the position of Sen. Begich’s rural director in 2009. Another former COYA delegate and current steering committee member, Ottar Mobley, ran for District 1 state representative in 2010. According to Andreassen, another past delegate is current president of her local tribal government, running her community. Porter has served on a number of boards and nobody involved would be surprised to see more COYA alumni taking leadership roles in the future.
“We’ve got some great folks who are going to be leading, if not next year, then in years to come,” said Andreassen, who doesn’t seem to see youth as a disadvantage in leadership at all. Anyone who witnesses a COYA conference discussion would probably agree.
“Once you find out that you can do something, you take that next step — I think (COYA) is one platform for that,” Andreassen suggested.
The adults in attendance seem ready to hand over or, at least, share the reins with these young Alaskans. Porter paraphrased one, saying, “There’s value in history, there’s value in knowledge and there’s value in brand new ideas.”
This is the future and it seems safe for Alaska to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Notes: The delegates represented 28 communities across Alaska, about one third were high school age, one third were college students and the other third were members of the workforce. The delegates also represented diverse cultures from the large communities to rural native villages, from the Southeast Alaska panhandle to Western Alaska and as far north as Barrow. For more information about the delegates and the conference, visit youngalaskans.org. The conference was filmed by 360North and further materials and reports will be available from the Conference of Young Alaskans and The Institute of the North.