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Teens paint murals and focus on sexual assault awareness on Youth Advisory Council

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - The Gresham Youth Advisory Council takes on both policy matters and community engagement efforts. The chairwoman of Gresham's Youth Advisory Council woke up one night inspired to make a difference.

Sarah Ali, an 18-year-old senior at Centennial High School, had thoughts racing through her head after the well-publicized national spat over the nomination and appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. She wanted to take the spotlight placed upon sexual assault and bring it into her own community.

"Sexual assault has divided our country, and I thought we should tackle the topic this year," Ali said. "Now is the time for youth to get involved, our voices are critical."

Educating and raising awareness about sexual assault within East Multnomah County high schools is only one of the many things that the city's Youth Advisory Council (YAC) will take on this year.

The group of 15 high schoolers from the Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds and Centennial School Districts work throughout the year to educate and serve the Gresham community through activities, educating peers, celebrating diversity and developing supportive partnerships between schools and community.

The group, formed in 2010, is open to freshmen through seniors and meets twice a month to learn about and advise city operations and projects. They attend key events and do service projects throughout the community.

"The youth are the future," said Sasha Konell, one of the Gresham city staffers who serve as a liaison to the group. "By getting them involved, they are learning about policy and government. They make our city a better place."

City liaisons to the council said it is the most ambitious group they have ever had. Under Ali's direction, YAC has decided to form two different groups focused on different aspects — one that takes on policy matters and another helming community engagement.

The policy branch is planning to host a second Youth Summit after the success of the inaugural meeting spearheaded by Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis last spring. This time, however, the students are going to be leading the way. While city leadership will still be involved, the council thinks having youths direct the proceeding will allow for the high schoolers attending to feel more at ease.

They are also running an anti-bullying campaign and diving into sexual assault discussions. Ali said a good start would be having a dialogue with fellow students, provide resources and putting together focus groups at each high school to brainstorm new strategies moving forward.

For community engagement the group plans to continue its mission of bringing murals to the community in troubled areas. They are working on three new ones this year, following a program that began two years ago in response to a hate crime in Rockwood. The main mural will be completed in the spring, while the other two are in conjunction with the Gresham Police Department's Neighborhood Enforcement Team.

The main mural will most likely be painted around 190th in Rockwood, in what is one of the most tagged places in Gresham. The members of the council will come up with the design, find the artist, and help bring their vision to life.

"(The youth) would drive around the city and see differences in the neighborhoods," said Ricki Ruiz, liaison to the Youth Advisory Council. "Even though we can't build houses, or bring new businesses, they knew we could make Gresham look better."

The YAC members also participate in various events, such as the upcoming Safe Trick or Treat event in downtown Gresham.

Getting involved

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Sarah Ali and Kendyl Beam both joined the Gresham Youth Advisory Council because they were inspired by national events to make a difference. Though she was always interested in politics, it was after the election two years ago that Gresham High School Senior Kendyl Beam decided to find more ways to have her voice heard. Even though she already had a full plate between serving on the student council, the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, a cheerleader, and many other groups, Beam decided to get involved with YAC last November.

"Since what happened in the 2016 election, I found myself worked up and passionate about making a change," Beam said. "I want to get more people to vote, support women's rights and address school safety."

The 18-year-old helped paint a mural last spring, toured the Gresham Police and Fire Station near City Hall, and, she is looking forward to getting a chance to discuss the issues with local elected officials. She wants to improve security in schools and help support her peers in finding their own voices.

"YAC is a lot of fun and a good way to get involved," she said.

Beam has also gotten involved on the state level. Her advisor on student council suggested she apply for an Oregon Associated Student Councils program called Capitol Ambassadors. She threw her hat into the ring in late September and was accepted to the group in October. She is the first student from Gresham High School and first representative of YAC to be a Capitol Ambassador. The year-long program will introduce Beam to the state legislature and connect her with other students, elected leaders and public officials from all across Oregon.

"Our mayor and city leadership have given young citizens a voice," Konell said. "People are paying attention and listening to them."

Students interested in joining the Youth Advisory Council can submit an application any time during the year. The applications are reviewed based on several categories, including GPA, community involvement, volunteer service and leadership experience. Recruitment for new members happens from February to May each year.

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