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Lobbying debuts made in full public view

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2009 - Politicians rarely pass up a chance to call on young people during hearings or make them the centerpiece of an anecdote in a speech. But events in which the young people are the center of attention and the politicians are called upon? Those are rare.

Thus the appeal of a meeting set to take place 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Lane Tabernacle CME Church, 910 N. Newstead Ave., in St. Louis. At the event, teenagers and twentysomethings who have completed a leadership training program will lobby public officials on everything from education to transportation to health care.

For 10 weeks over the summer, a group of 21 people between the ages 16 and 24 took part in the pilot program, called Path to Power. It’s an effort that involves the faith-based Metropolitan Organizations Strengthening and Empowering Society (MOSES), as well as local agencies Project ARK, the SPOT, Covenant House, Youth in Need and Epworth.

Some of the program participants are from area high schools or community colleges. Others are working or in search of a job. John Cross, a community organizer with MOSES who has run the leadership training seminars, said the young people come from “difficult circumstances,” including foster care and low-income families. The partnering agencies helped identify people who expressed an interest in public affairs. Topics covered during the training program include how to run a meeting and how to lobby for an issue.

“A lot of times leadership programs are targeted at the highest-achieving students or people who are already in college,” Cross said. “We wanted to create something to help people develop their potential.”

The program culminates with the so-called “public accountability meeting” on Thursday – a meeting that the young people helped to plan. They will ask for more resources for poorer school districts to help students who want to attend college. They will explain how they have been impacted by cuts to bus routes and ask Metro officials in attendance to introduce discounted youth passes. And they will ask developer Paul McKee to hire young people for any community development projects he undertakes. (McKee has already met with the group, and Cross said he expects him to be at the meeting).

Among the other expected guests are the Rev. James T. Morris of Lane Tabernacle, State Reps. Jeanne Kirkton (D-Webster Groves), and Rochelle Gray (D-St. Louis), and representatives from Mayor Francis Slay and Rep. William Lacy Clay’s office.

The event is open to the public.

It marks the lobbying debut of the young people taking part in the program. “Part of the exercise is not only that [the program participants] are accountable for their ideas and actions, but that elected officials are accountable on these issues,” Cross said.