RICHMOND — The Rev. Mark Jefferson looked out into the auditorium. Students gathered around almost every table, stacks of fact sheets and folders of notes spread out before them. Their time together was nearly at an end. Jefferson spoke with a calm determination.
“I’m here as your fellow brother on the way,” Jefferson said. “I’m here to remind you that because you live, and because you gather in this place, the world has the potential to be better.”
The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy hosted its first in-person Student Day of Action on the first Friday of February, to help students learn to engage with legislators. VICPP is an advocacy organization focused on social and economic policy. The group works with multi-denominational congregations throughout the state.
An estimated 150 people attended the event, said organizer Terri Erwin. Attendees came from 18 different schools: 13 four-year institutions, two seminaries and three community colleges.
“There’s nothing that can replace the experience of … seeing a bunch of young people, and realizing how human a process lawmaking really is,” Erwin said. “It’s people. And any person who chooses to can be a part of it.”
Ethan Hemmings, a Shenandoah University Conservatory student, felt empowered to meet with lawmakers.
“At the end of the day, these senators and delegates are just people, just like you and I,” he said.
Hemmings spoke to lawmakers about measures to end solitary confinement and cap some prison fees.
“I feel that using my voice in a positive and constructive manner not only changes my life, but it can also change the lives of others,” he said.
Erwin said she witnessed a “transformative effect” after the meetings, and the students were “so pumped up.”
Attendees participated in a total of 77 legislative visits, according to Erwin.
Students met at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond before and after holding their scheduled visits. The groups reflected on their experiences.
Gabriela Leija-Hernandez represented the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement. Her group met with Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham.
“He [Obenshain] kept on saying, ‘it’ll be a future thing,’ and we just kept on pressing,” she said. “The future could be right now, so let’s do it.”
Keisha Walker, VICPP administrative and finance director, said there were leaders in the group.
“They all exist, and we wanna bring them together so they will become familiar with one another and the issues that are important to everyone,” Walker said.
Shenandoah University student Scott Goodrich wants to be a state senator. He came prepared with several pages of notes and a desire to be heard.
“There is definitely a place for emotions in politics, as it’s a very emotional subject,” he said. “Politics is in every part of our lives.”
Goodrich is motivated by a quote from a blog post he once read: “The anger in your heart warms you now, but will leave you cold in your grave.” This mindset could lead to more effective legislative work, he said.
The main thing Goodrich wants to see from leaders? “I want them to grow a backbone,” he said.
King Salim Khalfani, VICPP’s criminal justice reform organizer, told students this is only the beginning.
“In Virginia, you must be as consistent as the raindrops,” Khalfani said.
Young people are fully capable, Erwin said.
“It’s impossible not to feel hopeful after what we saw,” Erwin said.
The event has a deeper meaning than just a singular day of action, Erwin told the group.
“The fact that we showed up, and put young Virginians on their radar screen — really, really matters,” Erwin said.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this November. Erwin said this “shuffling of the deck” provides an opportunity for young voters to participate in their legislature in a substantial way.
“What I found in all that travel, is not that young people don’t care,” Jefferson said to the group near the end of his keynote address. “What I found is that the stories people tell about you are often not true.”
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.