Natalie Richards worries about college debt. Gabriel LiFuentes said schools should be teaching the young how to think. Music programs are a necessary part of education, Stephen Mucci said.
The "Millennial Engagement Initiative" of the state Senate heard these and a dozen other concerns at a stop Monday at Holyoke Community College.
State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, 30, the youngest member of the Senate, and Holyoke Mayor Alex B. Morse, 27, led the discussion in a conference room in the college's Kittredge Center for Business & Workforce Development, 303 Homestead Ave.
Lesser is holding such meetings around the state to learn what concerns "millennials," the generation of students and young professionals born between the early 1980's and around 2000.
The program will wind up in June, a report will be posted online and the plan is to file legislation aimed at addressing specifics raised in the meetings, Lesser said.
"This is meant to be the start of the conversation," Lesser said.
While millennials volunteer and work in other ways to stimulate the community, they don't consider the political process a viable way to participate, he said.
Richards, 20, of Granby, is majoring in education at Holyoke Community College (HCC). At 23, she said, her parents had furniture on layaway and their first child by 26. She wonders how she will pay for her education, she said.
"I'm already worried about going into debt ... That's definitely an issue that's huge to millennials right now, the issue of college and paying for education," Richards said.
LiFuentes, 19, of Chicopee, said school curricula must change to educate children to be leaders. Civics classes that teach how government works should be a staple, he said.
"School is not supposed to teach you what to think, it's supposed to teach you how to think," LiFuentes said. An excellent way to reach young people is through community access television stations that would be run by locals with local content, he said.
"This is how change happens....It is monumental to our civil rights," LiFuentes said.
"God knows we can't really trust the media to do their job these days," he said.
Morse said Holyoke is in the process of establishing such a TV station using funds returned to the city in its contract with cable-TV provider Comcast and working with the nonprofit Holyoke Community Media Inc. (HCMI).
Also, community access broadcasting over Channels 12 and 15 currently includes airing of all full and committee sessions of the City Council and most School Committee meetings, he said.
Mucci, 25, urged officials to remember that music is an important way to involve young people in school.
"All I wish to ask of you is to please help us be able to have music programs," Mucci said.
"I think that's spot on," Lesser said.
State Sen. Donald R. Humason, R-Westfield, said Holyoke schools have a great music program.
"We agree, absolutely, something that the city's very proud of," Humason said. Of the less than 30 people people who attended the conference, it looked like less than half qualified as members of the millennial generation.
Lesser said it can be difficult for young people to get started and have their voices heard in the broader processes in society in which decisions are made. He credited Morse, who began his third term as mayor in January and was elected to his first at age 22.
"He had the courage as a young person to jump in and take those risks," Lesser said. Morse said agreed with several speakers that gaining access to the decision-making process is key to helping millennials address their concerns.
"It's very easy to be left out of the conversation if you're not at the table," Morse said.
Nelson R. Roman, 28, the Ward 2 representative on the Holyoke City Council, said access is a basic problem for his main constituency of poor Latinos. Teen-agers need activities to keep them busy, he said.
Young people, the homeless and others need training to get jobs and improve their lives, but many are unaware how to get such help, he said.
"In our neighborhoods, it looks totally different than suburban white neighbors, so just putting that out there," Roman said.
At least part of the answer is that the state needs to devote more funding to help such people get educated, participate in training and get jobs, he said.
Gladys Lebron-Martinez, the Ward 1 representative on the Holyoke City Council, said access in many cases involves many young people being unaware they are eligible for programs that can help them.
"There are certain things that are missing," Lebron-Martinez said.
State Rep. Aaron M. Vega, D-Holyoke, said lawmakers must do a better job of informing people that the Legislature makes decisions that affect welfare benefits, education, housing, insurance and other areas.
"We need to let people know that the work we do affects their lives," Vega said.
Morse said many young people are involved in their communities, but don't see elected office or politics as a way to make change.
"It really matters who runs for office, who's making the decision," Morse said.
Roman said the reality is that many children and adults who live in Holyoke, whose population of 40,000 is roughly half Latino, speak little or no English, though he praised the English-language-learners program in the city schools. That can eliminate access to job-skills programs as an option for them, he said.
Smart Spanish people might get failing grades in school or be unable to apply for a job because they don't know English, he said.
"It's really a disconnect," Roman said.
"That's a great point," LiFuentes said.
He once took a U.S. history class that had an entire chapter on Elvis (1935-1977) and how the rock-and-roll legend was credited with bringing attention to black culture, yet black culture itself wasn't a focus in the course, he said.
"We critically need to address that issue," he said.
Richards agreed and said curricula still focus on instruction that teaches that America is a predominantly white country with emphasis on white writers. But exposure to a well-rounded education that includes writers from a variety of backgrounds is important, she said. "I want to see that kind of representation in my generation," Richards said.
Jeffery Anderson-Burgos of Holyoke, a 2015 graduate from HCC, said that he is writing a grant proposal as part of a creative writing class at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst aimed at helping young people get involved in the democratic process.
The goal is to teach young people about how a City Council meeting is run and the issues that are debated, and to help them understand how such issues do affect them, he said.
Getting young people to participate requires instilling in them that participation is important, he said.
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) The Millennial Engagement Initiative forum was led by Holyoke mayor Alex Morse, left, and state Sen. Eric Lesser, right, of Longmeadow at HCC. (Right) State Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke talks at the forum as HCC alumnus Jeffery Anderson-Burgos, '15, and former HCC student Rachelle Houle, one of Vega's aides, listen.