By Levi Cooper
I’ll admit it. I was a little intimidated walking up the steps to the Maryland General Assembly. As a STAC (Students Taking Action for Change) fellow, my goal is to work with the Baltimore Jewish Council to find a way to advocate for an issue I care deeply about. My arsenal contained 30 one-page explanations of my bill, a schedule of where I was supposed to be, a suit to make me look professional, a smile, a handshake and three pencils.
Some background on my time in STAC: for the past half year, I have been sitting in the basements/living rooms of my peers, learning about every point essential to developing a successful argument. We learned how to draw interest by developing our own 30-second elevator speeches. We explored the root causes of issues plaguing us today and debated how to find solutions. Perhaps most importantly, we, as 20 teens from schools around Baltimore, all came together over issues for which we wanted to advocate. Whether it was trying to find a way to provide college financial aid for the homeless, or putting concussion sensors on helmets in school sports, we recognized that we too play a role in our government; that we have the ability to make those changes.
The issue I have been researching and chose to advocate for is animal rights. Roadside zoos throughout Maryland (yes, you read that right – roadside zoos) often keep animals in substandard, flimsy cages, resulting in escaped animals that have harmed the public. These so-called “zoos” are protected by the federal Animal Welfare Act, which automatically renews their license to operate so they have no motivation to correct this problem. The Maryland State Legislature is attempting to close this loophole, requiring (with the adoption of this bill) any zoos with large cats, primates or other dangerous animals to upgrade to a class C license for exhibiting animals. Many of the roadside zoo owners are upset, because this license class requires costly upgrades to be undertaken.
Pushing through the Maryland State House door, I realized that I was in a unique position. Few kids my age have the opportunity to meet with leaders making policy for our state. We were grouped by threes, and each group was assigned individual meetings with their delegates to discuss their bills. Meetings occurred in the delegates’ offices, in a close, intimate space where they could really listen to us. It amazed me how knowledgeable the delegates were about many of the bills we presented, and, if they weren’t, they would take down notes to further investigate a piece of legislature! Our group was even able to convince a few delegates to co-sponsor our bill.
As a program, STAC really exceeded my already high expectations. It gave me the experience to learn advocacy skills and gain confidence in speaking with important leaders. Because of STAC, I’m open to a network of all my peers who may care about the same issues as me. I know how to contact the people who have an impact on our state to tell them why these issues are important, and I’ve made friends and connections along the way as well. My bill, HB1124, has a hearing scheduled for late February, and I’m hopeful for a favorable report.
Learn more about STAC.