FLAG teens explore local government issues in depth

March 9, 2017 GMT

When it comes to the political activism (or lack of it) among young voters, Portage High School senior Layne Leege has some anecdotal insight.

At Wednesday’s session of Future Leaders Active in Government, Leege recalled working at the polls in the town of Fort Winnebago during a recent election, and hearing many of the voters say that they’d never voted before because they’d never seen their vote as particularly relevant.

But the exploration of young adults’ voting activity and apathy requires more quantification and depth, and that’s what Leege’s FLAG team is seeking.

FLAG is a program, led by the University of Wisconsin-Extension Columbia County, which offers selected students from Columbia County high schools hands-on experience in local government and citizen participation.

The record size of this year’s FLAG group – 38 students from seven schools – has posed both challenges and opportunities.

One of those opportunities, according to FLAG leader Karen Nelson, is the formation of teams of FLAG participants to look closely at a variety of government-related issues that affect people’s everyday lives – issues like drug addiction, law enforcement, recycling and young people’s involvement in the political process.

Wednesday’s activities focused on two strategies for digging deeper into those issues:

• Formulating an opinion poll, including writing questions and deciding how the poll will be distributed. Some options include conducting the polls in one or more schools, or posting them on social media sites such as Facebook.

• Putting together an in-depth presentation on each issue, including inviting experts to share their perspectives.

The presentations will happen at FLAG’s next session on April 5.

Nic Volle of Lodi High School said the group working on the law enforcement issue wants its poll to gauge what kinds of interactions young people have had with police, and whether those interactions were positive or negative.

“We want to know if they got pulled over, or if they went to a ‘coffee with a cop’ program,” Volle said.

The group, he said, also talked about the ways that police do, or should, interact with the public – not just apprehending accused lawbreakers, and “not just standing around at a parade.”

For the group studying solid waste disposal, the question of how many people recycle at least some of their trash has proved to be a challenging question to formulate.

“Our recycling rate is very low compared to other countries,” observed Portage High School Senior Natalie Kopecky.

“And how do you know that?” Nelson asked.

“Statistics,” she replied.

Nelson suggested that the survey should explore reasons why some people do not recycle.

“They may not recycle,” she said, “because they don’t know how to recycle.”

One of the issues that a FLAG group had been exploring – a proposal to build a “reliever road” through Columbia County to lessen traffic congestion on Interstate 39-90-94 between Madison and Portage – became moot, when federal and state transportation officials scrapped the proposal in late February.

Nelson said the group had already done extensive work on the issue, including seeking out property owners whose homes or farms were in the path of one or more of the four proposed “reliever” routes.

The “reliever road” group will do a presentation on April 5, Nelson said, but the participants won’t be expected to conduct a poll about an issue that no longer exists.

When the FLAG students made their traditional visit to the Capitol in Madison on Feb. 15, it included meetings with lawmakers who sit on committees that pertain to the issues that the groups are studying.

Some of those lawmakers, including some whose district does not cover Columbia County, may be among the panelists invited to speak on April 5.

Others include police officers, county department heads and county supervisors.

Nelson said the students will have a few hours on the morning of April 5 to finalize their presentations, then start giving them around lunchtime.

“I’m enjoying how you’re bringing this process together,” she told the FLAG students. “How are you feeling about it?”

Kopecky offered her answer: “Really stoked.”