Young Alaskans gather in Juneau

Fifty-six years ago, 55 delegates met to discuss their vision for Alaska at the Constitutional Convention. This weekend, 55 delegates gather yet again to discuss Alaska’s future with one major difference – all of them are under 25. The Conference of Young Alaskans, or COYA, began in 2006 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the constitutional convention. All the delegates are between 16 and 25, and traveled to Juneau from 28 communities.

KTOO Intern Alice Ottoson-McKeen reports.

These young, driven Alaskans are learning about issues facing the state, and by the end of the conference they will develop their own vision for the future of Alaska.

Planning for the 2012 conference has been in the works for a year and a half, and is organized by a steering committee of former COYA delegates. Co-chair of the committee, and Junior at Dartmouth College, Galen Pospisil says COYA is a unique experience.

“COYA is an opportunity to think about the next 50 years in Alaska. What are we going to do in the state? And it’s with the generation that will be shaping that,” says Pospisil.

Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell opened the conference. He says he sees great potential in the group.

“The 55 kids in this room, from all over the state, are our leaders – not just tomorrow – they’re our leaders today. These are bright young Alaskans, who are working hard to do neat things, and I’m just so glad they came together,” says Treadwell.

COYA focuses on five topic areas that are pertinent to Alaska: Economic Resilience and Fiscal Policy, education and workforce development, energy and power, and living harmoniously.

Twenty-three-year-old delegate Beau Poppin-Abajian is concerned with an array of issues facing the state.

“I am in natural resources, which I think is very huge. Obviously, oil production is big in the state and seafood industry is and various industries. The environment – climate change is a big deal in Alaska, so that’s an important issue. Another one that we’re not discussing as much, but hopefully will come up, is food security in Alaska, because a lot of our food comes from California besides our seafood. There’s a lot of issues and a lot of them are related,” says Poppin-Abajian.

Two time, 25-year-old delegate, Sonia Christiansen views the oil pipeline as one of the most important factors in Alaska’s future.

“I believe that the biggest issue facing Alaska is the lack of economic diversification and also the decline in our pipeline. I think that issue needs to be addressed as soon as possible,” Christiansen says.

But COYA does more to provide a setting in which to discuss Alaska’s future. As 24-year-old legislative aid Penny Gage points out, it is also a place to build relationships with likeminded individuals.

“I think it’s really interesting to see a lot of other young people that are so energized about the state. The conference just began, but I’ve already met people from Western Alaska, northern, also from Southeast like me,” Gage says. “And a lot of potential. I don’t know the majority, so it’s a great opportunity to meet people around my age.”

Before the weekend is over, delegates will produce a final document, which represents the consensus of the group on the five topic areas. In past years the members have presented the document to the legislature, and they hope to do so again this year.

But even if they don’t, each delegate is bound to come away with a better understanding of the issues facing the state and fresh ideas on how they can make a difference.

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