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'The current leaders, not just leaders of the future': Grand Rapids students address policymakers on issues impacting youth

Grand Rapids youth address city leaders on pressing issues, advocating for change and youth empowerment in civic engagement.
Students serving on the Mayor's Youth Council Executive Board address the panelists.

Students serving on the Mayor's Youth Council Executive Board address the panelists. /Kyle Johnson

Grand Rapids students had the opportunity to directly address city leaders on issues that are important to young people in West Michigan, such as housing, accessibility and transportation.

The Mayor’s Youth Council (MYC), comprised of 9th-12th grade Grand Rapids residents, provides opportunity and advocates for youth leadership in policy decision-making. The MYC held its annual KidSpeak Event on Friday at City Hall in the Commission Chambers. 

“The topic of youth-involved city planning is relevant not only to the current generation of youth in Grand Rapids but to future ones, as well,” said MYC President Ivan Shury.

This year’s event, titled “My City, My Plan: Youth Visions of a Better Grand Rapids,” is a program created by Michigan’s Children, a Lansing-based child advocacy nonprofit, that fosters civic youth participation across Michigan.

Student speakers addressed a panel of local politicians and leaders to share their thoughts on issues that affect today’s youth, including after-school programming, accessibility and transportation, parks and outdoor spaces, youth substance abuse, community building and housing. 

First and second graders spoke about safety on the playground and the importance of friendships in times of boo-boos. 

However, not all speakers were so light-hearted, as some students shared testimony on more pressing issues.

One speaker, Gabriel Henriott-Jauw, an 11th grader from CA Frost Environmental Science Middle High School, spoke on the erosion of his community through gentrification. 

“There is nowhere in this city I believe that is alive as the Baxter Neighborhood is. Even though it is neglected, people are vibrant, people are alive. This place is slowly disappearing. The grass might be greener, but the people are gone.” Henriott-Jauw said.

Henriott-Jauw shared with The Rapidian about his experience with homelessness throughout his childhood and staying with friends outside of the city limits.

“It was not comfortable for me. It was not home,” Henriott-Jauw said. “When I moved to Baxter, I felt at home. I was encouraged to speak at this event and the housing topic was one that stood out for me.”

Henriott-Jauw was not the only student who spoke about deep issues within the community. 

Amelia Ferenczi, a 10th grader from Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, told a story of a student’s commute to school that involved crossing a treacherous street, waiting in vain for cars to yield for her, as she was forced to take chances when the traffic allowed.

After revealing she is the student in her story, Ferenczi went on to tell the panel how she believes Grand Rapids has sacrificed walkability and accessible transportation for cars, parking lots and highways. 

Several speakers expressed their frustrations on accessible transportation. 

Melvin Imoh, a 12th grader from Innovation Central High School who uses a wheelchair, told the panel he is often unable to attend school functions like his non-disabled peers, and offered suggestions on how to make public transportation more accessible.

At the end of his testimony, he asked the crowd to stand and take a look at him. After the applause subsided, he thanked the room for the standing ovation. 

Community leaders and politicians said they plan to take the students’ testimonies into account when shaping city policies and legislation.

“The Mayor's Youth Council and speakers were very thoughtful and they showed how they are compassionate for each other, not just themselves,” said Bing Goei, the newly appointed Third Ward commissioner.

When asked how youth voices could be folded into his work as a city commissioner, Goei said he has “made requests to maintain communication with the speakers because I consider them the current leaders, not just leaders of the future.”

KidSpeak panelists shared their excitement to hear from the student speakers and expressed why these events are vital to connect youth with the city’s decision-makers to uplift their concerns and opinions. 

This event marks Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ final KidSpeak event as her term as mayor concludes later this year.

“This is a great last KidSpeak for me because of the great turn out, but ultimately I am really proud of the students. It takes a lot of courage to come up here and speak,” said Bliss, who meets monthly with the MYC.

The Grand Rapids chapter of KidSpeak is managed by Our Community’s Children, a private and public partnership between the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Public Schools that has been active since 2000. High school students were encouraged to apply to be a Mayor Youth Council member.


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