Davante Lewis is only 19 years old, but already a three-year veteran of Louisiana politics. His early political experience came about through the Louisiana Legislative Youth Advisory Council, which got its start in 2007 as a way to introduce high school students to politics, and was later embraced by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) as part of a larger program to bring students and politics together.
“Who better to advise legislators than the people who will have to live with the results of their decisions,” asks Sherri Breaux, chief legislative researcher for the Louisiana Senate, and program volunteer and lead adviser.
For Lewis, the kind of raw politics as practiced by adults has been an eye-opener. While he has taken it in stride, he explains why so many of his peers stay away from it. “The issue is the viciousness of government. It has become such a toxic land where it doesn’t look like things are happening,” Lewis says. “A lot of youth don’t participate because it says, ‘Why be interested in politics if it’s just a big high school drama game?’”
Now in its fourth year, new council members have been competively chosen from across the state. They follow in the footsteps of students who have witnessed and experienced government respond to the threat of hurricanes, the Gulf oil spill and the rough-and-tumble world of Louisiana politics.
David Holmes was an “idealistic but cynical” teenager when he participated in the council in 2008. “I had to shake my head at [the] adults’ behavior. They don’t listen. They resort to hostile words.”
Now an economics and history major at Vanderbilt University, Holmes says the student council members gravitated to a different way of doing things. “We stood our ground but stayed civil by hearing each other out.” Lewis agrees, “We weren’t like adults, not getting all crazy … we know compromise.”
Breaux has seen successive rounds of students drawn from communities across the state -- urban and rural, many with markedly different educational and socio-economic backgrounds -- learn about the legislative process, work through disagreements and arrive at a consensus around contentious issues they chose to debate, including poverty, education, obesity and bullying. “I love watching these kids when they operate,” she says. “They all want to make a difference. They do whatever they can to all reach the same place.”
Youth Advisory Councils, now active in 12 states, are an outgrowth of NCSL’s Back to School program, which each year brings together 320,000 students and 1,200 legislators in classrooms. The students learn the counterintuitive lessons of debate, negotiation and compromise, according to Karl Kurtz, director of the Trust for Representative Democracy at NCSL. “Compromise is essential,” he says. “It is not selling out. It is about getting things done.” More importantly, these young people are coming to terms with the depth of disagreement in the country, explains Kurtz, “and they are finding their way through it.”
For his part, Lewis spent the summer of his senior high school year and his first semester at McNeese State University in Lake Charles running for an open seat on the local school board. He campaigned to save four teaching positions slated for elimination by proposing that instead they eliminate salaries for school board members, a stance that earned 35 percent of the vote and the ire of incumbents and his opponent.
He lost, but that has not deterred him from showing up at board meetings and working on issues with the very people who opposed his candidacy. That’s because he learned one other important civics lesson: “Sometimes, change comes slowly.”