Kids these days: Kudos to Amherst middle schooler and other students making a difference

  • Julian Hynes, 13, talks about his interest and participation in Amherst government during an interview in the Town Room of Town Hall on Wednesday, April 10. FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Friday, May 24, 2019

Maybe it’s all those bean-and-cheese tacos he eats for dinner before Town Hall meetings, but 13-year-old Julian Hynes has proven he has the stamina, and the stomach, for local politics.

Hynes, a seventh grader at Amherst Regional Middle School, has become a familiar face at Town Council meetings since Amherst replaced its longstanding Town Meeting style of government with the 13-member council last year. He also has become an outspoken voice at the meetings, airing concerns over everything from the need to preserve the Central Fire Station building to the size of a new elementary school building.

“I want to understand how people on the council can make decisions that will affect my life,” Hynes told reporter Scott Merzbach.

“What I want,” he continued, “is to be heard and have my issues explained and discussed.”

Anyone who wants to make noise can be heard. What’s truly impressive is Hynes’ dedication to being informed. He aims to form “a professional opinion” before each week’s meeting. First, he finds the council agenda on the town website, amherstma.gov, along with other pertinent information, and then he decides what topic to weigh in on. He drafts his notes during school in study class and times his comments to make sure they fit into the three-minute limit.

His comments don’t always align with the council’s consensus — a graduate of Fort River Elementary School, Hynes disagreed with the town’s plans for one large single building to replace Fort River and Wildwood — but the middle-schooler sees his role as sometimes playing “devil’s advocate.” (Fort River is also the alma mater of former state Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, who joined the Amherst School Committee in high school.)

And his perspective is an important one: Hynes said more students his age want to be involved in local government, but their participation depends on the council accommodating them by holding meetings at kid-friendly times, like between 3 and 6 p.m.

That’s a worthy idea for the suggestion box in Amherst and beyond. Throughout the Valley, young people have been similarly engaged with local legislators and local government, showing up in recent months to a climate strike in Amherst and a town hall at Northampton High School.

More recently, students have spoken out in support of greater pay for teachers as the Northampton Association of School Employees, or NASE, continues its collective bargaining negotiations with Mayor David Narkewicz and the School Committee.

Do you sense a theme here? We do. Every day, we see examples of students getting involved in the issues that affect them most and speaking out for what they believe in.

In Northampton, a resolution drafted by the Youth Commission that passed City Council last year calls for lowering the voting age to 16 for municipal elections. Commission members recently to made a presentation in favor of the change at a public forum on election issues hosted by the Charter Review Committee. This week, the committee included the lower voting age as part of a series of recommendations to the mayor and City Council

At the state level, we’ve reported on the push for civics education in schools, a growing movement nationwide. According to a 2018 report on American education by the Brookings Institution, more than half of the states, in recent legislative sessions, had considered bills or other proposals to expand the teaching of civics. In November of last year, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a bill to promote and enhance civic engagement for students.

The new law will require public high schools and school districts teaching eighth-grade students to provide at least one student-led, non-partisan civics project for each student. It also creates a trust fund to assist communities, especially underserved ones, in implementing civics education requirements.

As valuable as civics education is, there’s no substitute for showing up in person to make a difference in your community — like Hynes has made it his business to do. And already, even younger kids are following in his footsteps. At a recent Town Council meeting in Amherst, third graders from Crocker Farm Elementary School appealed to councilors to allow “book boxes,” or small free libraries, to be installed at three PVTA bus stops in the area. Hynes, Merzbach told us, was also present and “looked pleased.”

We hope to see more kids of all ages taking an interest in their local government — and just as importantly, their local government taking an interest in them.