Rachel Alpert-Wisnia, a 16-year-old junior at Newton North High School, said she always admired people who lead. It had never occurred to her that she could be one of them.
But Alpert-Wisnia and over a dozen other Newton teens are enacting change in their community through the Newton Youth Commission — a volunteer group of students from 8th to 12th grade and adults advocating for youth in the City.
The Commission recently launched an Instagram campaign on mental health aiming to support youth through informative posts on various aspects of mental health.
“We respond to what’s going on in the community and take action on behalf of the youth,” Alpert-Wisnia said.
Health and Human Services Department Commissioner Deborah Youngblood said the commission is an “important vehicle” for youth leadership in local government.
“Youth voices are critically important in our community dialogues,” she wrote in an email. “The youth commission is one organized means for ensuring they are heard.”
The mayor appoints volunteers to the Commission, and the Department of Health & Human Services staffs it. Though the past leader, Quinn Etchie, has not been permanently replaced, Alpert-Wisnia said the commission has persisted in driving projects forward.
“Through these changes everyone has just taken on a leadership role,” Alpert-Wisnia said. “Which is just really great to see.”
Stephanie Spector, a Newton North senior and a commissioner, said they launched the campaign to advocate for youth mental health. Creating credible content and a safe space online to support students was a way she thought they could help, she said.
“Maybe they see one of these posts and they’re like ‘Oh that that applies to me, this is actually kind of helpful,’” she said.
The Commission launched the campaign in January and will run it through early April, highlighting topics such as sucide awareness, physical health, and mindfulness.
Alpert-Wisnia said she thinks Newton can be a high-pressure environment with “a sense of perfectionism” that can have a negative impact on youth. She said a goal of the Commission is to let children and teens know it’s okay not to be okay, and that they’re not alone.
“We want to make Newton an environment where people can feel comfortable talking about their struggles,” she said, “and especially reaching out for help.”
Ethan Dhadly, a sophomore at The Roxbury Latin School and member of the Commission, said the Commission in the past has worked on surveying high school students about mental health and resources. The Instagram campaign, he said, is an action step.
“Instead of surveying how people felt, we’re going to respond to how they felt,” he said. “We’re doing a great job combining together in order to tackle different aspects of mental health.”
Dhadly said he’s seen peers’ mental health deteriorate “greatly” with the pandemic. He said he hopes the page gives people tools to recognize mental illnesses and find resources.
At the March meeting, the group voted to establish a subcommittee to act as a “government liaison,” with Commission members attending city council meetings, tracking government agendas and engaging through public comments.
The group also is specifically advocating for the city council to recognize Newton’s Vote 16 campaign, a movement to lower the municipal voting age in Newton to 16 years old, in part through the new subcommittee.
Dhadly said he plans to apply his debate club skills to create rebuttals for potential arguments against Vote 16 and advocate for change.
“We can really show that we have a meaningful impact and we’re here, we’re not joking around,” he said. “We’re here to promote Vote 16 and we really want it to pass.”
Alpert-Wisnia said she joined the Commission to make a difference and hopes the group will be seen for more than their age.
“In a school on a club you can’t make that big of a difference, obviously, because you’re kind of just seen as a student,” she said. “But being involved in local government, we are able to be heard.”
Rhiannon Esposito, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Bigelow Middle School, joined the Commission last winter. Esposito — who started a world issues and politics club in sixth grade — said her parents always taught her to be a conscious citizen. Joining the Commission, she said, was a way for her to engage.
“As a young person, seeing how the government is not made for young people I really wanted to change that,” she said. “Because I think that if we’re going to make any progress, it’s with young people.”
Esposito said she wants students to know the Commission is working to make their voices heard, despite difficulties getting people to listen.
“It’s definitely a struggle,” she said. “But, you know, we’re willing to have a roller coaster ride in order to get our voices heard because in the end that’s what’s most important.”
Kathy Shields, a Newton School Committee member who is also the liaison to the Commission, said she has enjoyed watching youth lead.
“They’re an incredibly talented and motivated group of students,” she said. “I just wonder if I would have been together enough in high school to do the kind of stuff that they’re doing now.”
Shields said the Commission’s work, particularly with the Instagram campaign, is admirable. She said the group is a reminder to everyone about the importance of civic engagement.
“The fact that they spend this much time working on issues of public concern is really impressive,” she said. “These students desire to be involved in their community is a good example for all of us.”
Lily Kepner can be reached at email@example.com.