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Amherst Commons becomes a hot-bed for political discussion

(Photo courtesy of Alan Vandijk)

On Saturday, high schoolers met at the Amherst Commons with politically active organizations such as Indivisible NOHO, Climate Action Now, Youth Action March, Raise Up and Our Revolution.

The speakers collectively spoke for an hour, offering up advice on how to get involved and giving opportunities for the students to become active in their organizations. Raise Up Massachusetts handed out literature on “The Do’s and Don’ts of signature collection” as well as their $15 minimum wage ballot question.

Amelia  Ryan, a junior from Longmeadow High School, executive board member for Massachusetts High School Democrats, social media director of Youth Action March and organizer of the event, said the event was about connecting young people to different organizations so that they can get involved.

“Any volunteer work is valuable,” Ryan said.

The message of Ryan’s organization, Youth Action March, is to “connect young people with various politically- or service-oriented organizations in order to volunteer and get involved in whatever they believe in.”

One of the speakers, Beth Lev, leader of the “indivisible pathways to justice” group within Indivisible Northampton, graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1989 with a post-doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

“There are strategies that can be very effective in creating change…we can learn them, and we can gather together and organize ourselves to implement them and together make important change,” Lev said.

“It’s really critically important to support and thereby get support from the youth. I feel like youth that are interested in political change have a few obstacles in terms of getting around and level of independence, and so anything that we can do to support their involvement in the important work ahead is important to do,” Lev added.

Although the turnout at the Amherst Commons was small with eight students attending, Lev believed the event was successful.

In response to the small turnout, Lev said, “someone made an effort to make this happen and I’m really impressed with that…everything is a step and we grow larger by supporting what there is and adding to it.”

Regina Alkiewicz, a Baby Berk food truck employee, 2017 graduate of Amherst High School, and the recipient of this year’s Amherst Human Rights Heroes Award, was at the Commons on Saturday.

“I really enjoy being involved in local community politics,” Alkiewicz said. “I was an intern for State Rep. [Solomon] Goldstein-Rose this spring because I want to be active post-election and be a part of something bigger than myself. The event tonight was a smaller turnout than I expected, but it was really great to hear all of these different political groups.”

The end of the meeting contained a surprise in the form of a visit from Massachusetts State Representative Aaron Vega, who represents the City of Holyoke as part of the 5th Hampden district.

Vega  taught political science at the University of Massachusetts in 2015, in a class called “From the Campaign to the State House.” Vega recalled how the first half of the class for the students was about learning how campaigns worked while the second half was about policy, so students had to follow legislative bills. It all culminated in a field trip to the state house.

Vega said that he is “always interested in trying to connect with young people in the western Mass area.”

“There’s been a lot of youth-led rallies and meetings that I’ve gone to, so I’m really supportive of young people getting involved,” Vega said.

Vega reminded the crowd that in this area next year, “every state rep., every state senator is going to be up for election. There’s going to be some governor candidates and there’s going to be these ballot questions so there’s so many opportunities to get involved.”

Vega continued to talk about his hopes for the youth of western Massachusetts during next year’s critical election period.

“Getting involved in something you’re passionate about can really be life-changing…and set a path for somebody,” Vega said.

When asked if there was anything he would like to say to students at UMass, Vega encouraged students to get involved in their area, even if it meant going outside of college.

“On campus there’s great organizations, especially like PHENOM [Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts] who I work closely with on higher ed committees,” he said. “For people that think politics doesn’t affect their daily life, if they’re going to UMass, they’re embedded in politics…and I think that Amherst is such a hot-bed that it’s easy to get involved.”

Miranda Senft can be reached at msenft@umass.edu. 

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