The Arizona Students Association attended the Youth Empowerment Summit in April to advocate for affordable and accessible higher education across the state of Arizona.
This was the 42nd year the Arizona Students’ Association (ASA) hosted the Youth Empowerment Summit, bringing together grassroots organizations to train students in civic engagement and lobbying as direct constituents.
After two days of training, students headed to the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on April 3 to meet face-to-face with their direct representatives.
The focus of the weekend was to advocate for students’ rights and oppose a recently announced tuition increase at all of Arizona’s public universities, said Milagros Heredia, central organizer for the Arizona Students’ Association.
However, students who met with Sen. Wendy Rogers said that instead of focusing on the needs of students, the lawmaker ignored their concerns and instead peddled false claims about election fraud.
Learning How to Advocate
In the ASA lobbying training, students learn what to expect when they meet with their legislator. They role-play how to express what they are there for and who they are there with, and they end with a “big ask,” Heredia said.
The State of Arizona defines lobbying as attempting to influence the passage of defeat of legislation by directly communicating with any legislator. Students at the Youth Engagement Summit participated in the civic process to voice their concerns to lawmakers.
Students’ “big ask” was $169.1 million to be invested in higher education, including investment and expansion into the Arizona Promise Program and more funding for the Arizona Teachers Academy, according to Shayna Stevens, co-executive director of the Arizona Students’ Association.
Additionally, the students addressed protecting students’ voting rights—ensuring that students have access to voting drop boxes and in-person voting on Election Day.
Each bill that is lobbied is chosen by the students, Stevens said.
“My goal was to build connections with people, as well as advocate for the things that I’m passionate about,” said Alyssa Clift, Grand Canyon University student and Arizona Students’ Association member.
What Went Well
Heredia met with Democratic Rep. Laura Terech and found the meeting to be very productive and geared towards helping students in Arizona schools.
“She was very much aligned with our values and where we stand,” Heredia said.
Stevens saw one of the most successful meetings to be with Democratic Sen. Juan Mendez, who was very open to talking with and listening to students, especially as he serves a large portion of the Arizona State University community in Tempe.
“Students were very amped up coming out of that meeting, very energized and empowered,” Stevens said.
Students shared personal experiences with the representatives as part of their lobbying. As an undocumented student, Heredia had the goal of painting herself as more than a statistic.
“If I don’t tell my story, who’s going to tell it?” Heredia said.
Clift found her meeting with Republican Sen. Steve Montenegro to be positive. In the meeting, Montenegro reportedly said he is supportive of having affordable education, in theory.
However, Arizona Students’ Association members were also advocating for LGBT students, and Clift said Montenegro refused to address the LGBT bills that students in the meeting brought up, such as Senate Bill 1001. If passed, it would prohibit any school employee from referring to a student under 18 with a pronoun that does not match their biological sex–unless they have permission from a parent.
“If students aren’t feeling safe in their [K-12] schools, they’re not going to pursue higher education, and at the end of the day that’s going to affect both our state and our schools,” Clift said.
What Could Have Gone Better
The students also met with Rogers, a Republican. Stevens said Rogers was not respectful of the agenda students set for the meeting and changed the topic of discussion to unfounded and disproved claims of fraud in the 2020 election.
“I don’t view this as a Republican issue, I view it as a Wendy Rogers issue,” Stevens said.
Stevens said the first questions the senator asked the students were “What political party do you align with?” and “What party are you registered to vote under?”
The Arizona Students’ Association is a nonpartisan organization, and Stevens said the students came into the meeting in a nonpartisan fashion. All of the students in the meeting with Rogers were her direct constituents in Arizona’s 7th Legislative District, which covers Northern Arizona University.
“It is the first time in my years of doing lobby days at the Capitol with students where our students were just not treated with any type of respect,” Stevens said.
Rogers gave more time to Jordan Conradson, a writer for The Gateway Pundit who was recently arrested on suspicion of assault, to question students about why they were at the Capitol, rather than listen to them, Stevens said. PolitiFact describes The Gateway Pundit as a conservative website with 73% false or mostly false information.
Rogers did not tell students why Conradson was present during the meeting, and Stevens, who set up the meeting, said she was not informed beforehand that he would be there.
While lobbying meetings typically last 15-30 minutes, the students’ meeting with Rogers lasted over an hour, ending with her leaving for a Senate floor vote, said Maria Merritt, Northern Arizona University student and ASA member who was present in the meeting.
Rogers left the students with Conradson, who went over topics not on the original agenda—such as critical race theory and rigged elections, Merritt said.
Merritt said her voice and power felt dampened after the meeting with Rogers.
“We entered the space and she took over the space, she didn’t allow us to voice our concerns as her constituents and young voters,” Merritt said.
Rogers did not respond to a request for comment from The Copper Courier.
Despite the disappointment from Rogers, Stevens said the event was still a net positive.
“I think it was a really empowering weekend for the young folks that joined,” she said, “and it was really empowering for me as a staff member to be able to watch these students actually engage and empower themselves to take action.”
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