"It was really a good experience for everyone-there was so much connectivity," said Mara Early, 23, one of six delegates from Juneau at the Conference of Young Alaskans. "Often in Alaska and in Juneau we tend to be focused on what divides us-not what unites us. This conference really focused on the fact that we are all Alaskans, and made us think about the history of our state and the goals of its pioneers; things we hadn't thought about before."
The delegates to the conference, who ranged in age from 14 to 25, were chosen by a nine-member steering committee from a pool of more than 400 applicants.
Their goal as a group was to address five topics concerning all Alaskans-responsible development of natural resources, creating leaders for the next generation, providing quality education, developing healthy communities and families, and reviving the Alaskan dream and "Last Frontier" spirit.
Prospective delegates were asked to submit a paper to the Conference of Young Alaskans, explaining why they wanted to attend the event.
"What we wanted was for the applicants to demonstrate a passion for Alaska in their essays," said Meagan Gleason, who served on the steering committee. "We also wanted to see that they had some comprehension, experience or knowledge of the different topic areas, and also that they were motivated to learn more about these topics."
The committee also wanted the representatives chosen to be proportionate to Alaska's population in terms of geographic location, population, and ethnicity.
Of the 55 delegates chosen, Southeast was represented by six delegates from Juneau, two from Ketchikan, one from Sitka and one from Hydaburg.
They included Alex Nelson, Christy Bergman, Mara Early, Michael Cipriano, Sandon Fischer and Weston Eiler of Juneau; Gavin Douglas Piercy and Jay Miller of Ketchikan; Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins from Sitka; and Jennifer Mooney from Hydaburg.
Juneau steering committee members included Meagan Gleason, Ben Shier and Pat Race, all of Juneau.
Once at the Jan. 13-16 conference, delegates were asked to come up with a vision statement in each topic area, a list of goals and a list of action items.
These resolutions have since been put into a report, which the delegates will present to the Alaska Legislature at the end of February. A digital version of the report will also be available on the Conference of Young Alaskans Web site, www.coya.alaska.edu.
"I hope that our action statements will be taken seriously by the Legislature," said delegate Michael Cipriano, 23, a graduate of Gonzaga University who works as an in-charge accountant with Altman, Rogers & Co. "COYA delegates came up with action items to simply achieve goals and solve problems, and I believe that the items we laid out are to the point and mostly devoid of compromising political spin."
"The Conference of Young Alaskans gave the youth of our state a great platform to present their ideas," Gleason said, "and it gives decision-makers in the state a look at where young Alaskans' priorities lie, and what is important to them in order to continue to make Alaska home."
Though the steering committee purposely did not map out a plan for the delegates, the group had no trouble taking charge of the event.
"The steering committee set it up so that whatever happened, happened," Early said. "The conference was directed by the delegates, all of whom were united by being Alaskans. People let go of their agendas or personal interests at the door, and we worked as a group to determine a vision for the state."
Gleason said that despite the fact that it was a relatively young group, everyone came prepared to participate.
"My biggest concern was that the delegates would have a lack of experience or exposure, and not come in with a good knowledge base," she said. "Even the 14-year-olds came in prepared-people had done their homework so that they could contribute. Everyone did a great job."
Cipriani agreed. "I thought the high school students would be overwhelmed and not able to keep up with the older delegates, but this was completely not the case," he said. "I also worried that a couple of people would dominate the conference, but this was also not the case. Everyone had the opportunity to speak."
In a group whose age range spanned 11 years, there were plenty of different viewpoints to share.
"What I found interesting is that the older group, who ranged from 22-25, based more of their opinions on their experiences in the workforce," said Gleason.
"The younger folks came in with a more statistical approach to the conversations-they may not have had the real-life experience in certain subjects, but they knew the facts. It was a very interesting dynamic to see what happens when experienced-based opinions are contrasted with a statistical approach."
This first conference was such a success that both the delegates and the steering committee agreed that it should continue in the future.
"I believe that the group voted to have another conference in two years, and then hold one every three to five years after," Gleason said.
The steering committee is also looking into ways to keep the Society of Young Alaskans going, which was established to maintain the group's momentum. Though nothing has been determined yet, the group itself might be absorbed by another event in order to allow it to continue.
"I have to say that the delegates did an excellent job-I was really impressed," said Gleason, who added that it was hard to watch and not participate. "Each delegate took it very seriously, and represented his or her 5,000 people in the state well."
"I do a lot of work in Juneau trying to provide a network for younger people in order to retain the youth population, so for me, the conference was really empowering," Early said.
"It was exciting to see so many young people in the state doing something in their communities, and it really motivated me to become more involved in trying to make Alaska better for future generations."
A generation that will include members of the Conference of Young Alaskans.
"I was considering leaving Alaska in the near future because of some of the problems facing our state," Cipriani said.
"I no longer wish to do that-I am here for the long term and will do whatever I can to make Alaska the state it should be."