As part of YALSA’s partnership with the 22×20 Campaign, an effort to increase youth engagement and participation in the next national election, the 22×20 Taskforce is interviewing library staff working providing new and exciting civic engagement programs for teens. Taskforce member, Kate McNair interviewed Laura Panter and Cara Perry from the Sachem Library in New York about their program Pizza and Politics.
For readers who aren’t familiar, can you describe the program?
We reach out to local official’s offices to invite a politician to speak with teens about what they do, how politics impact their lives, and how teens can get involved over a pizza dinner. Pizza & Politics is not a new concept; there have been events for all ages since 2008. Our focus is on connecting teens with community leaders, but it can be adapted for other age groups.
You both wrote an amazing article on the mechanics of Pizza and Politics for SLJ, for those who might want to replicate the program in their library. In the article you set out your goals:
“Our goals for the program are to help teens gain a general understanding of how politics work, show them how this impacts them and their community, and give young people ideas on how they can get involved. We really want to empower teens and make them aware that their voice can make a difference. We also see this program as an opportunity to be an “ice breaker” between teenagers and local politicians with the hope that meeting face-to-face will give the teens confidence to reach out in the future with questions, problems, ideas, or as volunteers.”
Is there a moment or memory from a Pizza and Politics event that really illustrates how you were achieving these goals?
It can take a little time for the teens to warm up, but once they feel comfortable and have that ‘aha’ moment where they ask a question, that is a great feeling. We have had teens ask extensive (unprompted) questions about school safety, gun control, environmental concerns, abortion, and other difficult topics. There have even been teens who stayed around to talk to our guest after the program. That interaction makes us feel like we are doing something important for the youth in our community.
What has most surprised you about Pizza and Politics?
I think ‘delighted’ is a better word than ‘surprised’. We know that teens are aware of and concerned about what is going on in the world around them, but we don’t always get to see them express their feelings or know what they are thinking. It’s wonderful to watch them show their interest and passion about social topics through the questions that they ask. It’s also fantastic to see the politicians directly engaged with the teens; they don’t get that opportunity often and they have expressed gratefulness for these events. When you see the ‘wall’ come down between the teens and our guests as they get real with each other that is an amazing moment.
Speaking of politicians, how do you decide who to invite and are there any tips you can share to secure a yes from elected officials? Is there a trick to when you send the ask? Do you send the invitation or does it come from your director?
There aren’t any strict guidelines, but we like to ask politicians that represent our district in some capacity so that they can speak about topics and issues that are relevant to our communities. We are open to anyone from the local to the federal level. We do prefer to make contact in-person first; we have met politicians at Sachem Public Library events and other public events. If it is appropriate, we will bring up the program and give a quick background to gauge interest and then follow up with their office. The invite comes from us, although we will take recommendations from any staff member in the library. There really isn’t a trick to timing the call other than giving them plenty of time to plan ahead and being open to what will work with their schedule. For example, making the ask close to election season would not be an ideal time to secure an event.
What was the one lesson you learned from hosting Pizza and Politics over the years? Any rookie mistakes someone else can avoid when following in your footsteps?
Have the pizza delivered and make sure you have extra staff on hand to help with signing teens in, distributing the food, clean up, and handing out certificates. You want to be able to focus on your guest and making sure the event is running smoothly. In addition, always have a list of prompt questions on hand just in case you get a group of teens who are shy in asking the first question.
What kind of impact has Pizza and Politics had on the teens who attend? Can you see any impact on the politicians who participate?
This program for the teens and the politicians has had an overwhelmingly positive impact. It is exciting and rewarding to have teens engaging in discussions with politicians. Politicians have told us they enjoy the opportunity to meet and speak with this age group in a casual setting. It also gives our guests time to talk about volunteer opportunities available to teens and ideas on how teens can get involved in their community by attending different community events throughout the year that are offered by politicians’ offices. Intern programs at the county and state level for older teens can also offer great experiences that can be put on college and job applications
Where is Pizza and Politics headed in 2020? Are you planning any other civic engagement programming for teens?
We plan to continue to offer more Pizza and Politics programs in 2020 although we do not have set dates as we go to print with this interview. We are also in talks to partner with official’s offices on other learning opportunities being offered by our local public officials. As we plan these new initiatives to bring more civic engagement opportunities to the teen audience, it shows us we are continuing to meet our goals of getting teens involved in their community.