Annual Meeting Re-Cap

Time for some long overdue blog posts! First and foremost, our annual meeting the last weekend in July was a huge success. I was able to enjoy the speakers and panels I wanted to see and still fulfill my responsibilities ensuring that the meeting ran smoothly. The weekend was a good balance of running the meeting, and taking a break to enjoy the speakers I wanted to see. It was great to finally see all my hard work finally pay off, and I met many inspirational people throughout the course of the weekend.

To anyone undertaking this kind of event planning experience at their internships, the best advice I can offer is to just go with the flow. When things do not go according to plan, which they inevitably won’t, don’t stress about it. Speaker doesn’t show up? Ask one of your attendees to fill in for their spot. Keynote speaker needs a ride from his hotel? It isn’t every day you get to drive around a man who worked with B.F. Skinner. Starbucks forgets to prepare your coffee? Smile and wait for them to fix their mistake. I’m normally a perfectionist about all the little details, so I was quite proud of myself for not stressing out over every little mishap that weekend.

Here’s a re-cap of the annual meeting, pictures included!

  • Saturday July 30th. 8 am. Longest day of the weekend, and it started off with some minor logistical issues. I started my morning driving around like a crazy person: first to the office downtown to pick up the meeting folders, the to Bagel Place to pick up donated bagels. Finally (or so I thought) I showed up at Starbucks to pick up the coffee they were donating to us. They forgot to prepare it (of course, why would things run smoothly?!)  and said it would be ready in 20 minutes. I drove over to UMD’s campus, dropped off the bagels and conference materials. Drove back to Starbucks, only to discover that the coffee wasSteve Culbertson not ready – they didn’t have the large container to transport it in. They sent me over to a Starbucks down the road, where I finally picked up the giant coffee cambro, along with an abundance of condiments. The upside when someone else makes a mistake like this – they’ll do anything to make it up to you, as proven by the bags of sugar, napkins, half-n-half and milk we received.
  • After our President Jeff Nadel gave his opening speech, I watched Youth Service America’s President Steve Culbertson speak. Steve’s speech was thought-provoking; he presented community service in a way I had never seen it before – as a tool to empower youth. You can empower a young person to enact change in their community by giving them the tools to do service for the community. I had never thought about service in this way before, but there was definitely a lot of truth to Steve’s speech. My experience with Alternative Breaks taught me to think about service as a tool for learning. In turn, one should never embark on a service project without fully understanding the issues in the community where the project is set to take place. I never took the time to think about the other side to service, the effect it can have on the person serving the community. Mary Beth Tinker
  • Next up was Mary Beth Tinker. The Mary Beth Tinker of the famous Tinker v. Des Moines Idaho case. I enjoyed listening to her recount her experience in school – she only did what she thought was right. At the time, she had no idea it would  be a famous court case. Mary Beth was just standing up for something she believed in. She even brought the black wristband with her, which was really exciting! Mary Beth also talked about some present day examples of student rights in schools, which sparked a discussion about low risk activism vs. high risk activism. The biggest issue we grappled with was whether students were engaging in high risk or low risk activism in cases concerning rights in schools. Some believed they were high risk because they were challenging the administration and the status quo, but others felt they weren’t…they may be receiving attention because the school violated their rights, but their initial actions weren’t high risk. How to Start a Chapter - NYRA and SSDP
  • After we returned from our strategic planning lunch break, I had an experience that once again demonstrates the versatility of my internship – I led a workshop called “How to Start and Sustain a Chapter” with Stacia Cosner, a representative from Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Stacia oversees chapter formation for SSDP, and their chapter network extremely strong. They have multiple chapters running in every state, and they receive 4 or 5 new requests each day! I talked about my experience with NYRA Chapters over the summer and offered some suggestions for advertising, recruiting, and transferring leadership, but I was also interested in hearing about SSDP’s practices from Stacia. A great experience overall, and now I have a connection to another professional who engages in local chapter formation!
  • One of our Saturday afternoon panels was a great (well, not so much) example of how things don’t always go according to plan at a conference. We were supposed to host a Youth Rights Theory Debate panel with four representatives, one from each political party. Each representative would have a chance to discuss their party’s platform on youth rights issues, and to answer questions from our meeting attendees. Two political party representatives didn’t show up – I’ll give you one guess which two parties it was. We had our Executive Director Alex fill in for the democratic party representative, and one of our members, Connell Wise (CEO for the U.S. Youth Chamber of Commerce) filled in for the republican representative. This dynamic proved to be interesting, in that the Green and Libertarian party representatives used it to their advantage. They both pointed out that their attendance demonstrates their respect for us. Since their political parties are much smaller, there are more opportunities for young people to become involved and voice their concerns.
  • After the meeting wrapped up around 5 pm, our group migrated over to a local bowling alley to release our Annual Report, talk about our accomplishments over the past year, and conduct Board Elections. NYRA is a unique organization in the way we run our elections – every dues-paying member from the organization can vote in the election and run for the board. Many incumbents were re-elected but we also gained some fresh faces, including a former AU student, Eric Goldstein! During Alex(our Executive Director)’s overview of the Annual Report I received a lot of praise for the hard work I put in over the summer, especially the work towards making the Annual Meeting a huge success. Perks of working for a grassroots organization: people appreciate the time and effort you put in, even as a Summer Fellow! We took a group picture, and then it was time to bowl!Annual Meeting 2011 - Group Picture
  • Check out the front row of the group picture…those students came all the way from Lowell, Massachusetts to attend the Annual Meeting! (they stayed in the sleeping space at St. Stephen’s Church, an arrangement that I coordinated). They’re from the United Teen Equality Center, and we presented them with an award for the group that did the most to advance youth rights. The teens have waged a successful campaign to lower the voting age in Lowell to 17 as part of their civic engagement program. I was extremely interested in the UTEC program because it reminded me of OYE, the organization I worked with down in Honduras. Why? Both organizations are structured to empower youth by allowing them to run the organization. In Honduras, the students run a radio program, a magazine program, a soccer tournament, and an art program. At UTEC, youth members run all aspects of the local and state civic engagement programs. Campaigns, recruitment, advertising, meetings, everything. The program also helps students obtain their GED, and actively recruits teens and young adults who are involved in gang activity. They’re an amazing group of individuals from an amazing program, and I was thrilled to talk with them throughout the course of the weekend! 
  • The teens from UTEC led a workshop on lowering the voting age on Sunday afternoon, where they took us step-by-step through their campaign to lower the voting age to 17. The best part of their presentation was their explanation of the three step model behind all their endeavors. They broke the actors in the process down into three categories: Allies, Secondary Targets, and Primary Targets. The primary targets were the groups with the power to enact change – in the case of the first phase of UTEC’s campaign, the Lowell city council. The secondary targets were people with power to influence the primary targets: school board officials, teachers, police officers, politicians, etc. The UTEC group campaigned to gather  support from the secondary targets before taking the issue up with the primary targets. Allies were the people they already had support from – mainly the youth and UTEC staff members. So I’m sure you’re wondering why I was so excited about this model…it’s simple. Many NYRA members are passionate about an issue…they want to lower the drinking age, lower the voting age, or get rid of a youth curfew, but don’t know how to begin to tackle it. UTEC’s model provides a way for the activist to think about potential supporters, who they’ll need to campaign to, and how to win over those with the ultimate decision making power. The UTEC students had us do just that in the workshop – they split us up into groups and had us fill out our own model for a local issue!
  • The final speech on Sunday afternoon was delivered by our keynote speaker Dr. Robert Epstein. Dr. Epstein is a research psychologist who has focused much of his work on studying adolescence and the development of the teenage brain. He explained to us that as far as brain development is concerned, adolescence is the time period in which it peaks. Teenagers are in their prime, both physically and mentally, yet society chooses to restrict them rather than encourage their development. Dr. Epstein showed us a graph of laws that make perfectly legal behavior illegal for people under age 18. In the late 1800s these laws did not exist, but now there are about 140 laws to restrict youth behavior. Dr. Robert Epstein
  • Switching gears a bit, I had quite the adventure Sunday morning getting Dr. Epstein to the meeting. I had to drive out to his hotel near BWI to pick him up, then back to a restaurant near UMD for lunch. I only made two wrong turns (one on the way there and one on the way back), and we only arrived a few minutes late for lunch. All in all, a pretty big success.
  • There was one panel I haven’t mentioned yet, and there is a reason I saved it for last. First thing Sunday morning we watched a documentary screening about Straight Inc, a behavior modification facility that shut down in 1993. The documentary was heart-wrenching. Former participants in the straight program told stories of the horrors they experienced in the program: terrible things the staff did to them, and terrible things they were peer pressured into saying to others. The suicide rate among people who survived Straight was 15%. One family member told the tragic story of her brother’s suicide, which was directly caused by the time he spent in Straight’s facility. Straight and programs like it use unconventional, inhumane, and downright abusive techniques to “rehabilitate”  troubled adolescents. The methods used include forcing a teen to sit or lie in one position for 12 straight hours, denying teens bathroom breaks, forcing them to ridicule each other, forcing confessions to problems they don’t have, etc. The programs are run by staff with no background training in psychology, child development or professional care. Worse, the program directors set the stage to make any complaint against them appear to be false. They tell parents to ignore letters from their children asking to be pulled out of the program. If your child claims he is being neglected, ignore him. If he tells you he’s being restrained, receiving inadequate amounts of food, or being abused by staff members, he’s just making up lies to get out of the program. The filmmakers, many of them program survivors, mentioned a book written about the industry, entitled Help at Any Cost. I just finished it, and it was an eye-opening read. It’s hard to believe that abuse this terrible can happen in the United States but it does, and many facilities continue to operate in this manner. I can say with confidence that this is an area of law I want to go into. It encompasses everything I want in a legal career: youth rights, civil rights, justice for those who have been harmed, and the potential for international legal issues as well, since some facilities are based overseas. While watching the documentary something clicked in my head and I realized “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. This is the legal career I want.” Needless to say, I hope to be doing more research on this issue very soon!