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Chicago High Schoolers Take Over City Council

There was a lot of talk about “playing politics” in Illinois this week.

Imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich once again defended his style of political arm-twisting. And state lawmakers wrapped up their legislative session late Thursday night with a flurry of last-minute deal-making.

But on that same day at Chicago’s City Hall, more than 50 high school students gave a whole new meaning to “playing politics.” WBEZ was there to cover the inaugural Next Generation City Council meeting.

Students from eight Chicago public high schools descended on City Hall Thursday to learn about city government and politics. They spent the morning working in five committees, coming up with new ordinances for a mock City Council meeting in the afternoon. 

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

Sheila Hatchett, 17, served as mayor for the day. Students who participated were elected by students at their school, and the mayor and clerk were then chosen by (actual) city officials. Hatchett said she created a short video as part of her “campaign” for the top job. 

“I made a video on Snapchat and downloaded a video app to my phone and just put it all together,” she said.

The eight CPS high schools that participated were Fenger, Roosevelt, South Shore, Kennedy, King, Uplift, Michele Clark, and Benito Juarez.

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

Students were divided into five committees, similar to those in the real Chicago City Council: Public Safety, Budget and Government Operations, Education and Child Development, Health and Environmental Protection, and Housing and Economic Development. Their ordinances covered everything from stopping gentrification to increasing the number of recycling bins to reopening mental health clinics.

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

Diamond Granderson from Michele Clark High School served as City Clerk, frequently reminding his colleagues to speak clearly into their microphones. 

The Next Generation City Council was the brainchild of the real City Clerk, Anna Valencia.

 “I think the students are tuned into a lot more than the adults think, and I think we can learn a lot from their various perspectives because they live in the neighborhoods and they see what’s going on and they know what they need,” Valencia said. “We just need to do a better job as adults of listening to what they need.”

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

The chairs of the Committee on Education and Child Development, Kaylah Stubbs from King College Prep and Miguel Santiago from Benito Juarez High School, listen as other teenage aldermen ask questions about their ordinances. Unlike the real City Council, which is often criticized for being a rubber stamp for the mayor, the Next Generation City Council members cast a lot of “no” votes, including against the Education committee’s measures, which failed to pass.

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

Arianna Johnson from Christian Fenger Academy High School presents on behalf of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection with the help of Clerk Valencia. Johnson sat in the chair of Chicago’s longest-serving alderman, Ed Burke (14th Ward). In all, the teenage aldermen passed about a dozen ordinances during their hour-and-a-half long meeting.

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)

No trip to City Hall would be complete without a stop on the 5th floor to meet the actual mayor of Chicago: Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, a skilled politician, is known to be ruthless in securing the votes needed to pass laws both in Chicago and Washington D.C. His advice to the teenagers? “You make sure you know who your yeses are and your nos before a vote, and then you make sure you know who your yeses and nos are after a vote.”

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.

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