If you want to get frustrated with national politics, just watch a few minutes of cable network news. If you want to be discouraged by your political representation in Montgomery, scroll through the comment section of any online news article or social media post about the proposed Mobile River bridge tolls.
If you want to lose all hope that even local elected officials can get along and make the best decisions in the interest of simple progress, I can suggest a few regularly scheduled public meetings to attend. But if you’re looking for a refreshing perspective and encouragement that perhaps our democracy won’t always be as divisive as it is today, go talk to tomorrow’s leaders.
Last year, Mayor Karin Wilson encouraged local high schoolers to form the Fairhope Junior City Council (FJCC). Armed with an idea she acquired at a municipal conference, Wilson sought students who were interested in “developing leadership capabilities, pushing forward youth issues, and educating young learners about municipal structures and government matters.”
One of the first to express interest was Fairhope High School (FHS) junior Mimi Tran, but she wanted to do it her way.
“Kind of latching onto the idea that there’s not much connection between the youth in Fairhope and politics or social awareness … I emailed the mayor after we met and we came together to combine our different visions,” Tran explained last month. “What I wanted was a council that was completely student-run. Basically I talked to her and said, ‘there’s no way you’re going to get kids involved with Fairhope municipal politics if you don’t give them something that they’re actually interested in.’”
Tran said Wilson gave her the reins and after a few months of distributing flyers, soliciting ideas from other students and reviewing applications, the inaugural FJCC was formed. They don’t have a budget, they don’t pass ordinances or resolutions and never have any reason to go into executive session. Most of them aren’t even old enough to vote.
But Lagniappe recently sat down and chatted with several members at the same place they held their first meeting — Refuge Coffee in downtown Fairhope — to understand exactly what their role and responsibilities are.
“I got involved in the council to see how government works and how it can best serve our community,” said Erin Casolaro, who will be attending Auburn in the fall to double major in accounting and nonprofit and philanthropic studies. “I’m really passionate about building community and so many people love Fairhope — I love living here — but they don’t really know what it means to be part of it and to build it and connect with all the different groups within the community.”
Casolaro said she received somewhat different civic experiences by participating in the American Legion Auxillary’s Girls State program and Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce’s Youth Leadership Program, but the FJCC is more community-oriented.
“I’m seeing people in government who are actually invested in you and building up the next generation and showing them the problems they see,” she said. “I think in part, students think ‘oh, they don’t really care because I can’t vote. So if I’m not a voter, then why would they do anything for me?’ Which I think is completely untrue.”
Grayson McKean is a sophomore IB student with an interest in writing and art. She said: “One of the reasons I joined the council is because there are plenty of ways to get involved with school, but there really aren’t that many opportunities like this with the city. And so I feel like this is one of the only opportunities I’ve ever had to actually see like how the city works or take our ideas and actually make them better — turn them into reality.”
Among the issues the council has been allowed to participate in include the planning meeting for the future of the K-1 Center and the discussion regarding a city manager form of government, but it has also conducted youth surveys, hosted Wilson’s annual State of the City address, organized a community mural painting project and a charity kickball tournament, among other things.
“One of the beautiful things about the council is that as it progresses, we can change the precedent because right now, the precedent is that if [youth] see a problem, they kind of disregard it, they think they can’t do anything about it,” said Claire Kiernan, who is interested in attending Elon University or Rhodes College because of their emphasis on service.
“But I think as the years go on, and as hopefully the council grows and develops, they will see a problem and say, ‘oh, let me just text my friends on the council and they can take it to the higher-ups’ and actually get change.”
FHS junior Darria Leggett said in her experience, “young people may be pensive about reaching out to community leaders to accomplish things, but the council gives us that opportunity … being on the council has really made me reconsider my whole life plan. I think a lot of people think, ‘I have to get out of here … I’m not coming back.’ But Fairhope is probably a place I want to return to. My family’s here.”
The phenomenon known as South Alabama’s “brain drain” has long been a trend local officials have tried to reverse, as many young people with college degrees may seek careers in larger, more diverse job markets in metropolitan areas with a greater quality of life. But 15-year-old music enthusiast Victoria Whatley said she recently returned from a trip to Spain and Morocco and it felt more disconnected than she imagined.
“Going over there you would think people are there for study abroad, or they attend the University of Madrid for a better education or something that looks good on a resume,” she said. “But really … compared to a smaller community like Fairhope, it’s like a completely different world. Over here, everyone’s so connected to each other and everyone knows what’s going on over there it’s the opposite. In my opinion, the smaller community is the better opportunity compared to the bigger community, something that you don’t really think about.”
“I think part of our mission, too, was connecting the different generations,” she said. “Because I feel like it’s pretty easy for older people to say, ‘Oh, those children don’t really know what they’re talking about.’ But even with young professionals, we’re working with them to show students and young adults ‘this is what you can do when you grow up’ and connecting the different generations and how they can help each other in so many ways.”
But the council has also given its members an opportunity to see bureaucratic and political sides of local government.
“It was pretty eye-opening for me to see all the hoops you have to jump through to get something done,” Casolaro said. “And it’s no fault of their own … but sometimes I feel like it’s really easy for people to complain about, but if you take a peek on the inside, you realize it’s actually really difficult. I think the behind the scenes people are certainly the unsung heroes of Fairhope because the amount of work and effort that they put into events or to propose to the city council things they want to change … and there’s other people in their department relying on them too.”
Since Wilson began her term in 2017, there has been a lot of give-and-take between her administration and the City Council, and the members of the FJCC say it hasn’t gone unnoticed. In fact, they recognize at times it mirrors national politics, with either side unwilling to make concessions until someone’s hand is forced.
“There’s definitely been a lot of pushback and there are times when I was frustrated or overwhelmed,” Tran said. “But it only gives me more motivation to follow through with everything.”
“I absolutely feel like it’s our generation that is going to do something amazing in the future,” Leggett said. “Because of how the media portrays politics nowadays, we see [the divisiveness] so much. But everybody has some kind of interest in it and everyone has something to say about it too. We’re lucky we live in a country where you can go out and educate yourself and vote … it’s going to be us.”
Casolaro mentioned campaign signs that sprouted up during the referendum for a city manager form of government that proclaimed, “If you don’t know, vote no.”
“That’s not what we need to be portraying,” she said. “If you don’t know, research it and look it up and form your own opinion. Maybe that can’t fit on a yard sign but it’s what needs to happen.”
The members of the FJCC also acknowledged a lack of diversity in state and local politics, where city councils, county commissions and the Legislature may not appear to be representative of the population as a whole.
“I feel like a lot of people in Fairhope believe that everyone’s just like them, and they have the same belief systems as me,” Casolaro said. “And they have the same amount of money that I bring in every month and they have the same type of house and you have the same sort of high-paying job when really, there’s part of our communities that aren’t like that at all. And people don’t see them as part of our community because it’s not like them.
“So I think part of what we’re encouraged to do is show people that we all live here, and we’re all community, and your community is not just the friends you hang out with every week but it’s also the people that live around the block from you that you’ve never talked to before. And they may have a different background than you and they may have different beliefs and they may live a different way than you, but they are a part of the community too.”
Whatley said that’s why small projects such as the mural painting can make a difference.
“I’m pretty sure that probably just 90 percent of the people who participated aren’t really interested in politics, but they were there because they wanted to leave a mark on Fairhope,” she said. “And if everyone got a chance to add something to Fairhope, which is not something that you would really think to be a part of, it can still make you feel like part of the community.”
And the members of the council say they find it personally fulfilling.
“This council is not just a resume filler, it’s actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever worked on because when you’re on it, almost 50 percent of your energy is going into it,” McKean said. But she said she didn’t know she had a passion for organizing events until she put together the kickball tournament. Kiernan thinks more about her communication skills after creating a FJCC website and newsletter. Leggett has been setting priorities based on the results of her survey. And still, they can’t vote.
“What I’ve learned is that you grow up thinking about the way that you make change is by voting so you sort of have to wait until you’re able to,” McKean said. “But I’ve learned now that’s only a little part of it. You can change what’s happening in your community in so many different ways and there are so many different aspects that go into being a citizen.”
“Personally, it’s definitely been a journey for me, too,” Tran said, “Because growing up here since I was born I was definitely like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get out of here.’ But then my experience … working with the city personally and getting to know everyone and already making connections as an 18-year-old … I had never thought about going to school and then coming back. But now I’m more down to come back. Coming back here and working for our city has never crossed my mind until this year where I’ve been like, ‘I love Fairhope.’”
The Fairhope Junior City Council also includes Eleanor Johnson, Peyton A. Aiken, Chris Miller, John McEniry and Kaleigh Spears. For more information, visit fjcc.fairhope.com.
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