There’s no lack of ideas among the members of the Sint Maarten Youth Parliament, who are trained in politics, debating and critical thinking. The first step is taken, but they are not yet completely satisfied. “We see things adults don’t see and are just as invested as adults in wanting a prosperous life and island.”
“The opinion of the youth is often neglected. We aim to take a stand and share our ideas on behalf of our peers,”16-year-old Breanna Silvers states.
Breanna, Kadar Gumbs, Jamie Lynch and Breyenne Brown are four members of the Sint Maarten Youth Parliament. The group, fifteen teens strong, is supervised by community leader Connie Francis-Gumbs. Youth Parliament provides training to the youth ages 13 and up, in government & politics, parliamentary procedures, debating, critical thinking & reasoning skills.
Jamie: “Being part of this group has improved my public speaking and helped me feel more comfortable expressing myself.” Kadar agrees: “I don’t think I’d be doing this interview if it wasn’t for my experiences in Youth Parliament, I am usually a quiet guy.”
Last year the group participated in UNICEF The Netherlands’ #MyNewWorld. The project encouraged young people to share their opinions, through discussions, debates, and presentations to elected officials. Breanna: “In Youth Parliament, we aim to present to Parliament at least once a year. So, the #MyNewWorld project matched our goals and helped us better formulate our opinions and advice.”
However, the group also admits that despite the ‘in-the-moment’ excitement of being able to present to Parliament, they are frustrated with the lack of follow up: “In speeches, we always hear ‘the youth is the future’. Yet, our opinion and advice is not taken seriously. But this is not just with Parliament, it is with adults in general – they don’t include us in decision-making. This is always disappointing.”
“How will you fully understand and help the youth without asking them what they need?”
Sint Maarten has an estimated population of 40,614 inhabitants. The child population (under 18 years) is 9,888 (Factsheet Population 2018, Department of Statistics). This means that 1 in 4 residents on Sint Maarten are children.
Breyenne, who is one of the strongest debaters in the group states: “How will you fully understand and help the youth without asking them what they need? We have a lot of valid points and ideas because we feel the challenges first-hand.” At the beginning of each (school) year, the members of Youth Parliament decide on a theme for the year, on which they will focus their discussions and advice to the public and government, including Parliament. This year two themes were chosen: education and sports.
More creative lessons
Kadar: “Education and dealing with Covid-19 is hard. Online learning does not work, and my school doesn’t have enough space to follow safety guidelines safely.”
The group agrees that schools and teachers are “doing their best”, but that they should make more effort to standardize the apps used in online learning such as using only Google Classrooms and Zoom. Also, they should make online classes more creative and engaging for students, and lastly, ensure that every student has access to a proper device and internet.
Subsidies for sports gear
Breyenne: “I enjoy sports, and so do many of my friends. However, we feel like it isn’t accessible to everyone. Many kids can’t pay a sport club fee, proper sports clothes, or the right equipment. We have to resort to begging friends, family or businesses for contributions.”
The group would like to see subsidies made available for families that cannot afford memberships or gear for children. In addition, they would also like to see more support for local athletes. “So many other islands have top athletes that they celebrate, market, and sponsor, but here that hardly happens.”
A cool area to hang out
Jaime: “Adults say ‘get off your phone’ or ‘why all these youth loitering on the street’, yet, there are not nearly enough safe places or amenities for our age group to have fun at. Philipsburg used to be a cool area to hang out in, but now it is like a ghost town. The ‘happening’ areas are just full of bars.” Revitalizing Philipsburg is also one of the conclusions that was presented to Parliament in January 2021. Game rooms, internet accessibility, more lighting, youth-friendly snack bars, and removal of old buildings are ideas that came up during this interview.
Taking youth mental health seriously
When asked what other issues concern the group, they mention violence, poverty, LGTBQ+ equality, job opportunities, and mental health. The latter, the group is incredibly passionate about. Breanna: “Mental health is not addressed at all, but it is a serious and growing issue. Often when the youth talk about being depressed or angry, we are not taken seriously. This also plays a part in the increase in youth violence.” She recalls the two recent suicides in January 2021 and March 2020. Some of the members knew the victims personally: “It is really sad, and we feel like it might have been prevented if there was more help available.”
“You’re too young to understand”, “You are being dramatic,” and “Just focus on school” – are some of the responses the group gives as an example of ‘adult responses’. “One of the reasons we don’t get the help we need is because we feel like adults ignore and belittle us,” Breanna explains. Privacy and support are two qualities the group expresses that are very important in an ‘adult confidant’. Breyenne: “My school counsellors are amazing; they don’t judge, they listen to me, and don’t share what we talk about with others.”
Just as invested as adults
“So many of the youth on Sint Maarten have to take on real ‘adult problems’, like financial difficulties, violence at home, taking care of their siblings. This is not fair in itself and makes it even less fair that we are not included in the decision making of our island. We see things adults don’t see and are just as invested as adults in wanting a prosperous life and island,” expresses the Youth Parliament in conclusion.
Readers are encouraged to follow the Sint Maarten Youth Parliament on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sxmyouthparliament and share and comment on their lively debates. Interested young people are also welcomed to join in on meetings held on Saturdays at the Rupert I Maynard Youth Community Centre. Email [email protected] for meeting information.