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Students at NUSA Conference get important lesson in politics

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Students help DeRenn Hollman as he works on his campaign poster. (Ariel Worthy/The Birmingham Times)
By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times

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More than 100 students at the 43rd Annual Neighborhoods USA (NUSA) Conference in Birmingham on Friday created their own city where technology is paramount and littering and cyberbullying are not tolerated.

The City of Diversity – with the slogan, “Where Everybody Counts and YOU Matter” – was a “tech city” and it even came with an election season to give students a taste of politics.

Birmingham is hosting the 43rd Annual Neighborhoods USA (NUSA) Conference. The four-day event, which ends May 26, features a series of panels, workshops, and collaborative events that encourage networking, camaraderie, and idea-sharing. The theme for 2018 is “Building Tomorrow’s Community Today.”

Creating a city during the youth conference was a lot harder than imagined, said Annissa Owens, a rising junior at Shades Valley High School.

“You have to find neighborhood presidents, city councils, a mayor; you have to find transportation, how to get around,” she said.

However, Owens, 15, said she is grateful for the experience which included her role of getting people out to vote.

“[Citizens] have to get the law they want to be passed, and to do that, they have to vote for whoever they want to be mayor,” she said. “I think my part is important because if you want your voice to be heard you should go vote. So, you can’t get mad when the change you wanted didn’t happen if you don’t vote.”

DeRenn Hollman, 13, who will attend Ramsay High School in the fall, was a mayoral candidate and said his goal was to “make the city more comfortable and like easier for people.”

“I want more technology, and you won’t have to work as hard for things,” he said. “It’s a tech-heavy city, so it’s easy, but the easiest thing to do is to participate in the things the city has going on.”

Running for elected office wasn’t as easy he thought.

“Campaigning is hard because you have another candidate who is just as qualified as you,” he said. “But you also have a team behind you and people who support you and believe in you. It’s still hard to go up there and speak in front of people though.”

The candidates had two major campaign issues: cyberbullying and littering.

“You’re either for littering to be a crime or against littering to be a crime,” Owens said. “You’re either for social media to end because of cyberbullying or you’re against social media to end because of cyberbullying.”

Hollman said, “as a mayor I want some cyberbullying to stop, but I don’t think social media should have to end because of it. Social media is fun but use it responsibly.”

Campaigning taught the students some valuable lessons.

“You still have to go through a lot of different people (such as the legislative branch) and if they don’t like it, they cannot go through with it,” Hollman said. “You can’t just say ‘littering is a crime’; you have to send it to your council to approve it. If they don’t like the law they can vote against it.”

Owens said he now sees some things differently.

“Some things are not as easy as it sounds,” she said. “Like getting extra transportation is not as easy as I thought it was. Like getting a new bus. You have to go through voting and funding to get those new things.”

Danny Brister, operations manager for the City of Birmingham Mayor’s Office Division of Youth Services and co-chair for the NUSA Youth Conference, said the message for students was simple.

“We told them that we need their impact, their intelligence, we need them to engage,” Brister said. “At the age of 18 a young person can serve as neighborhood president. That’s important for them to know. As early as 16 they can vote in their neighborhood elections. We hope they gain an understanding that it takes a lot of work. We hope they leave inspired to make a change.”