They could have been a gaggle of slightly older Junie B. Jones lookalikes. With upturned faces politely aimed at the serious-minded panel of women in front of them, Girl Scout Cadet Troop 222 gave no sign that they minded missing a couple hours of a warm Saturday afternoon. The ponytail-filled audience shuffled their sparkly sneakers a bit, but for the most part, they gave five women commissioners and school board members their rapt attention. At a point when women’s issues have surfaced in the national dialogue, the time was ripe to bring together elected officials and young girls to talk about how to be heard through politics.
The middle- and high-school girls and the women elected officials gathered at the Mt. Lebanon Library to inspire and educate each other. For troop members, the goal was to learn what our municipal and school district officials do, so that they could sew on their public policy badges. Many of the women, though not an agenda item, may have seen their younger selves, wondering if their dusty badge sashes were still in the attic. Mt. Lebanon School Director Josephine Posti was definitive when she told the audience, “There is no doubt that my years as a girl scout informed my interest in leadership and public service.”
Explaining to teens how government works isn’t easy. It’s a safe bet that many adults don’t exactly understand the political process (but sure know how to complain.) Commissioners Kelly Fraasch and Kristen Linfante pointed out that in the Mt. Lebanon municipal budget, there are 2,200 line items that live or die as commissioners set priorities in the chambers in the municipal building. To make sound decisions, they sometimes need to get out of the municipal building and research the topics. For instance, when the issue of child safety in Spalding Circle came up literally a day or so before 25 trees were to be planted there, the commissioners were called outside for a walk-through. A small group of residents complained that the trees, if planted, would destroy the straight shot that makes Spalding Circle an exhilarating sled run. Commissioner Fraasch’s comment that Mt. Lebanon ordinance doesn’t actually provide for sledding in that parklet raised some of the girls’ eyebrows—they may not have known exactly what an ordinance is but had an inkling that it is some type of rule that ought to exist to protect their slopes. Fraasch said that a few changes in the tree-planting plan were made in response to citizens’ suggestions, and volunteers then planted the trees, which were awarded to Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy as a TreeVitalize grant through the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
The panel told the girls that no issue is too small to command their attention, if a constituent chooses to ask for their help—they answer such routine questions as where people can have a picnic or whether they need a permit to put a fence up. Katie Gannon, a tall sophomore wearing a beige sash festooned with badges and pins, looked surprised at some of the minutia that comes to the attention of elected officials, much of it which could be handled by the school or municipal staffs (and often eventually is).
Bela Posti, an 11-year-old Jefferson Middle School Cadet, was surprised that commissioners and school directors even thought of anything kid-related: “At first I wasn’t really that excited about politics, like before the event,” she said, “but then I learned how elected officials make decisions. I learned how they really take into consideration what kids think too. I didn’t know they even thought about us!” Bela said that the event that changed her mind, and now she thinks “politics are pretty cool.”
The officials also focused on how they navigate important and sometimes contentious issues such as the frequency or efficacy of garbage /recycling pickup or the massive high school renovation project. In a town where it’s common to bump into an adversary at the coffee shop, the women repeatedly emphasized the necessity to listen to all sides of an issue.
Josephine Posti shared her experience, saying, “I think that all of us have been out and around those personal interactions.
“Even if it’s a person who disagrees with us, it’s very meaningful.” she continued. “What is not [meaningful] is when someone pokes at an issue anonymously. I have had many conversations with neighbors or strangers who have said, ‘Hey I am really upset about this issue…
“What all of us find is that [when you listen] you are able to recognize the common ground. We are all neighbors. We can have disagreements, and that is fine.”
The panelists all viewed accessibility to their constituents as as a positive aspect of public service. They viewed their ability to hear someone out immediately and face to face as a great advantage, as opposed to federal officials, who remain relatively elusive.
Learning that only two of five commissioners and three of nine school board members are female appeared to surprise the girls too. And it should. According to Women Vote PA, Pennsylvania ranks 47th in the number of women holding public office, one reason why the school and municipal officials who spoke repeatedly emphasized the need for young women to get involved in the political process.
That sunk in too. Bela Posti reflected later, “I think these women should probably speak at schools. What elected officials do is important. They play a big role in our community. If we don’t know what they do, we can’t come to them and tell them our opinion.”
The adults obviously enjoyed the event and agreed it was meaningful for the girls. The scouts expressed confidence that in the future more women will run for elective office. When asked if this event could and would be held again, both the scouts and the community leaders who inspired them agreed that it should. Now that’s a way to lean in.