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AMHERST — Sydney Mager has long been active in the local arts community — performing “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” for the virtual Merry Maple celebration in 2020 and being part of the Hurricane Singers and Hampshire Young People’s Chorus,
Mager, 15, is now bringing her perspective, as a sophomore at Amherst Regional High School with experience at Amherst Ballet and the Massachusetts Academy of Ballet in Holyoke, to the Amherst Cultural Council.
“Since I’m involved in arts programs in Amherst, I thought I would have a good point of view,” Mager says of being named to the council in October.
As one of three young members, Mager said she is offering input on the types of events people might find appealing during the pandemic, such as a virtual drum circle and a virtual paint class, and possibly bringing the community safely together outdoors during the summer.
Meantime, with the high school community facing challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, like anti-Semitic and racist graffiti, budget cuts, and disparities in educational success and teacher retention, Petua Mukimba, 17, sees the town’s Human Rights Commission as a forum for addressing some of these concerns.
“Coming from a low-income, single-mother, Black immigrant family, I am able to bring those perspectives into discussions surrounding human rights in the town of Amherst,” said Mukimba, a high school senior and vice chairwoman of the panel.
Mager and Mukimba are among six teenagers currently playing an active role in Amherst government, from selecting artists to put on programs for the community and promoting justice and equity to determining how public safety is provided and supporting enhancements to the tree canopy.
“I think it’s important to have young people on these types of committees,” Mager said.
On the Cultural Council, two other student members are Nandi Chivende and Leah Neuburger. Though they don’t get to vote on the applications received, they do participate in all conversations with applicants seeking grants.
In his memo to the Town Council, which approved the appointments last October, Town Manager Paul Bockelman noted the importance of having students on committees.
“Encouraging these students to participate in the work of the Cultural Council will bring much needed diversity of opinion and perspective to the council’s deliberations and a broader engagement of the youth of Amherst,” Bockelman wrote.
Like Mager, Neuburger, 15, was recommended to serve on the council by a teacher, before filling out an application and then interviewing via Zoom.
“Before I was on the council I had an idea of how town government worked, but this job has taught me so much about the government process,” Neuburger said.
Gaining appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work that allows Amherst to function and hearing from other perspectives on the council, Neuburger is also part of subcommittee aiming to provide extra money to artists who make their works fully accessible.
“It feels really great to support local artists and give money to projects I am passionate about,” Neuburger said. “It is also so rewarding to support these artists and organizations throughout the pandemic.”
Unlike Northampton, a city with the Northampton Youth Commission since 2001 formed by City Councilor Bill Dwight, no similar entity in Amherst provides a direct voice for young people.
But Bockelman said that any teenager in Amherst is welcome, like any other resident, to fill out a Community Activity Form if interested in serving on a town panel.
The Human Rights Commission is one committee that has always reserved a slot for at least one high schooler. Mukimba said she applied when a notice was posted for an opening in fall 2019, and then joined after starting the Community Youth Action Club at the high school and becoming involved with justice and equity matters at the school.
“I was interested in being more involved with Amherst on the town level, and I was also interested in how governments create change,” Mukimba said. “The Human Rights Commission seemed like a perfect opportunity.”
Diversity in age, experiences, race and gender, Mukimba said, gives the commission the ability to be leaders on confronting issues as they arise.
This week, for example, Mukimba said the commission will revisit efforts at outreach to the Asian American community due to an increase in attacks happening across the country. Her role may be to get in touch with students of Asian descent and immigrants to learn what people in Amherst can do to stand in solidarity.
The most recent student appointees are Darius Cage, 14, to the Community Safety Working Group, and Julian Hynes, 15, to the Public Shade Tree Committee.
Cage is on a panel charged with examining how public safety is provided in town and getting feedback from residents about their feelings toward police that will go into a report to the town manager. Cage, as the youngest member, Bockelman wrote in his appointment memo “would be willing to reach out to people he knows to encourage them to become engaged in the work of the Community Safety Working Group.”
Since the Town Council’s inception in December 2018, Hynes has participated regularly in public comments and feedback at Town Council. More students, including those who can’t yet vote in town, state and federal elections, is a good thing, Hynes said.
“I appreciate the effort to diversify our committees by age and race,” Hynes said.
He said the opportunity to be a voting member of a committee gives him equal footing with other members and that he can also have a back-and-forth conversation that isn’t possible when speaking to the Town Council.
“Committees in general are a place where it’s more of an open, friendly and healthy environment, and I can feel like I’m making a difference,” Hynes said, adding that sustainability, environmental protection and climate change are often discussed by his peers.
Hynes said he looks forward to working on the budget line item to support the committee’s work, finalizing a shade tree bylaw and scheduling monthly plantings. The committee will also be doing important work locally as a proposed renovation of the North Common in front of Town Hall, where the Merry Maple stands, may get underway.
He may be the initial high schooler on a committee that at one time was made of up retirees, and thanks Chairman Henry Lappen and Tree Warden Alan Snow for the chance. “It feels good to be the first,” Hynes said.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at [email protected]
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