The past several years have seen an upward trend in youth civic engagement, and that certainly appears to be the case here in Southwest Washington. Teens across the country and around the world are showing up for the issues they care about, whether that issue is climate change, increased access to mental health support in school, or—in the case of many youth in Southwest Washington—prevention of substance abuse among teens in their local communities.

More than 60 youth from Clark, Cowlitz, Klickitat, and Skamania Counties participated in Use Your Voice, an advocacy training event hosted by ESD 112’s Prevent Coalition at Excelsior High School in Washougal on December 6. The five-hour training was led by two Clark County teens: Jaelyn Sotelo, a junior at Skyview High School, and Kyle Parker, a senior at Cascadia Tech Academy. Both have previously participated in advocacy and public speaking trainings and are members of Prevent’s Youth Empowerment Project, a youth leadership development group that meets monthly to empower youth with skill building and connection.

Jaelyn Sotelo, a junior at Skyview High School, presents at the Use Your Voice advocacy training event.

At the fourth annual advocacy training, youth engaged with their peers while learning what it takes to influence decision makers, identify and connect with their legislators, and be agents of change in their communities. At the end of the event, Sotelo and Nelson presented guest speaker Washington State Representative Paul Harris with an award for his steadfast work to raise the legal age to purchase nicotine and tobacco products to 21—also known as Tobacco 21, or T21. The award given to Harris was presented on behalf of youth volunteers, community coalitions, Tobacco Free Kids (who donated the award), Foundation for Healthy Generations, and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Sotelo and Nelson presenting guest speaker Washington State Representative Paul Harris with his award.

Harris has attended Use Your Voice since it began in 2016, and he has been an important advocate for T21 since the beginning. Over the past several years, Harris has worked closely with several area prevention coalitions, including Prevent, to advocate for raising the legal age to purchase and use tobacco and vapor products to 21 in the state of Washington.

At this year’s Use Your Voice training, Harris provided youth with some encouraging words for continuing to advocate for change in their communities and expressed a heartfelt thank you for the award he was presented with.

“Thank you for this award; this is yours, too!” Harris said, indicating that the coalition youth had worked just as hard as he had in order to get Tobacco 21 passed earlier this year. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2020.

Sotelo was on hand to talk about her experience working with Rep. Harris over the past couple of years. She was largely involved in advocating for the passing of T21 and was inspired by Harris for his tireless efforts supporting the legislation. Sotelo had met Harris at a previous prevention event, and she was excited to see her and other youth’s efforts come full circle with the presentation of Harris’ award.

Through her work with Prevent Coalition and Strong Teens Against Substance Hazards and Abuse, Sotelo has found a passion for advocacy and civic engagement. The opportunity to plan and lead Use Your Voice this year was a privilege for her, and she feels proud of her peers for standing up for what they believe in.

“Seeing all these other kids here is really inspiring,” Sotelo said. “I think they’re really going to go far and make a difference for our generation.”

All Use Your Voice participants are invited to engage with policy makers in Olympia during Prevention Policy Day on January 20, 2020. Youth and adults from the community are also welcome to attend and share their stories.

Use Your Voice is hosted annually in December by Prevent Coalition. Unite! Washougal provides the training facilities, supplies, and planning support for Use Your Voice. Funding is provided by the Washington State Department of Health, Dedicated Marijuana Account.

For more information about Prevent Coalition and to learn about ways to get involved,