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Guest opinion: Chelsea Tossing: Commissioners should review their practices for constituent engagement

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By Chelsea Tossing

I teach an environmental civics course at a high school here in Boulder Valley. I believe deeply in the power of experiential learning, and do my best to employ a problem-based approach where we learn interdisciplinary content by exploring issues that affect our community. This quarter we’re exploring the complex topic of “Water in the West” through the lens of the Gross Dam Expansion, a nuanced local issue happening in my students’ backyards. Our goal is to examine the question: How do we balance human needs and environmental limits?

To respond to such challenging investigations, our future needs young people who have nuanced and critical perspectives and who are empowered to have agency in their communities. I believe connecting students to their local government can be a transformative step in their future as engaged citizens; that’s why I reached out to the staff at the Boulder County Commissioner’s Office to ask if they might be able to speak to my students about the general role of the county commission and how they navigate constituent voice in complex issues like the dam expansion project.

I’d like to share my correspondence with a staff member at the Boulder County Commissioners’ Office in hopes of creating a thoughtful conversation about how our elected officials engage with young people as their constituents.

“Hi (Staff Member),

Thanks so much for responding to my request. I’ve reached out to several folks at Denver Water, and I appreciate the additional contacts! I’m hoping a representative from Denver Water can meet us on our field trip to Gross Reservoir to talk about the impetus for the project, their process for community engagement and the overall vision for the reservoir going forward.

In an effort to include stakeholders from a number of perspectives to add to the richness of my student’s educational experience, I would love to have someone from Boulder County represented if possible. We are ultimately working toward creating our own civic action project, and engagement with local officials like the commission has a significant impact on both their understanding of civic processes as well as their sense of agency and connection in their community.

Is there anyone I might reach out to that would be willing to talk with my class about the role of local government and opportunities for constituent involvement, especially as it relates to complex issues like the Gross Reservoir expansion? Thank you for your time, and I appreciate any direction you might be able to give me!

Best,

Chelsea”

I am incredibly disappointed to have received the following response from the office of our elected officials:

“Hi Chelsea,

I don’t believe there are any staff members who would be comfortable participating in such a conversation at this time. I’m sorry we can’t be of more assistance.

Kind regards,

(Staff Member)”

I understand that officials have a considerable workload and that not all requests can be honored, but to avoid a conversation about democratic participation with young people because our leaders aren’t “comfortable” is a poor model of governance that lacks transparency, accountability and courage. I would like to call on Boulder County Commissioners to review their practices for constituent engagement and consider holding a forum on youth outreach and young voter education. In the spirit of transparency, I would also like to request that the commission make public the email addresses of each district commissioner so as to create accessible pathways for direct communication from their electorate.

As the voters of the future, our students deserve leaders who are willing to engage them, even when it isn’t comfortable.

Chelsea Tossing is a high school teacher. She lives in Boulder.

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