When State Representative Joe Salazar held a meet and greet last week at the Hightower Cafe in Paonia, roughly 25 people came to hear him speak. House District 31 representative and a candidate for attorney general, Salazar visited the North Fork area and the community of Pitkin as part of an ongoing listening tour. Among those in attendance were five students from the Paonia Experiential Leadership Academy.
Students listened to discussion on a variety of topics including health care, mental health, the opioid addiction epidemic, separation of church and state, renewable energy, oil and gas development, and immigration issues. Of particular interest to students was funding for rural schools.
"What's happening in Denver should be happening in rural schools, too," said Salazar. "But that's not the way it works."
The event was sponsored by the Delta County Democrats and Crawford Area Indivisible. "This is the first time at any event that we've seen young people here," said David Jacobson, chair of the Delta County Dems.
Phil and Emily Wassell opened the private secondary academy this fall. Emily Wassell is the director. A Colorado native, she holds a doctorate in educational leadership, research and policy from the University of Colorado. She and Phil, the head teacher, were teaching at exclusive schools in Europe and wanted to return to Colorado and bring a level of excellence in education to the area. They chose the North Fork area as their home. After Emily applied to the Delta County School District for three years and didn't get a job, they founded the academy.
"We feel like a radical change in education is necessary," said Emily Wassell.
The program focuses on "student well-being as an outcome," said Wassell. Students study a variety of topics from government and economics to life skills like sewing, nutrition and financial security.
Learning about their community is also a big part of the experience. The object, said Wassell, "is to involve students in as many community events as possible." When it comes to government, "It's our intention to go to as many political events as are relevant to these students."
To prepare for the meet and greet, students researched Salazar's background, examined the structure of Colorado government, and learned how the office of attorney general relates to Paonia.
To get a broad range of perspectives, students want to attend other group meetings and talk with Independents, the Green Party, Republicans and others. They also plan to attend school board, city and county meetings, with the ultimate goal of gaining a broad understanding of how government influences their lives, said Wassell.
"Over the course of our four years the goal is to have them study local and state government and eventually travel to Washington, D.C.," to trace government back to its roots, said Wassell. They want "to really get students to not feel intimidated by politics, to let them know that it is relevant to them and that it is about them."
Students said they learned a lot by attending the event, including what an attorney general is, how decisions are made at the state level, and by whom.
Salazar said he was impressed by the students and gave them a piece of advice: "You're inheriting this world," he said, "and you have to take responsibility for it."