Captivated by Council

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

CLAD IN JEANS and a striped hoodie, Austin Bullock raises his hand to ask a question at a Cortez City Council work session. He says the council members have been receptive to his presence. "They know who I am, but there isn't much small talk," he said. "They show up and get down to business."

By Luke Groskopf Journal staff writer

Stereotypes work in a vicious cycle. They discourage people from speaking thoughtfully to one another - if you know everything about somebody already, why bother? But when they don't speak, they aren't given the chance to transcend the stereotype. So the cycle endures.

Interrupting that pattern is one goal of the School Community Youth Collaborative. By involving area teenagers in the inner workings of businesses, nonprofits and municipal agencies - by bringing them into the decision-making process normally reserved for adults - SCYC hopes inter-generational bridges can be built and stereotypes broken.

Austin Bullock, recently turned 18, has been a steady presence at Cortez City Council meetings for the last two months. And a conspicuous one.

Few adults, not to mention youth, choose to spend their free time listening to obscure, nuts-and-bolts exchanges about road maintenance and grant proposals.

But Bullock - bespectacled and inquisitive - doesn't mind. He's committed to going and making his voice heard when warranted.

"I mostly listen and observe," he said. "(The councilors) have been doing lots of budget work lately, and they don't need my opinion on that sort of thing. I'm there in case they discuss something that concerns youth."

"Sometimes the acronyms go flying way over my head. But I can follow along for the most part," he added.

Bullock's family moved to Cortez only two years ago. After one year at Montezuma-Cortez High School, he transferred to Mancos High School as a senior because it interfaces more closely with Fort Lewis College. Having stockpiled all the high school credits he needs to graduate, Bullock is taking four FLC classes this semester and is bound for Colorado State University in the fall.

Asked if his presence at the council is a temporary amusement - a flavor-of-the-week cause - Bullock says no.

"I'll keep going until this summer when I leave for Fort Collins," he said. "My intention is to pave the way for somebody else to take my spot. Until then, I'll be sitting in on those meetings."

Bullock said his parents didn't pressure him into it - neither is a politician of any sort. His father, Jeffrey, is a physical therapist for Indian Health Services in Shiprock, and mother Jennifer is a language arts teacher at Cortez Middle School.

So is city council participation a tactical ploy, a means to an end? Is Bullock laying the groundwork for a meteoric rise to future stardom?

Not likely. He doesn't watch CSPAN, has little appetite for political theatrics and has no ambition to hold elected office.

"I try to stay up to date with the news. But I don't dig through articles to find juicy details about politics," he said.

Well-spoken beyond his years, Bullock cares more about words.

"I'm looking at a communications degree," he said. "I'm almost finished learning Spanish. Soon I'll be out of college classes to take. I'd like to learn a third language and find work as a translator."

He mentions Chinese and Russian as viable, in-demand options.

As it happens, this desired line of study - communication - dovetails nicely with SCYC's mission.

In late October, youth project coordinator Cindy Houston organized a meet-and-greet where 15-odd students networked with adults from the Piņon Project, Mesa Verde Museum Association, Cortez Historic Preservation Board, Heart and Soul Project, KSJD Dry Land Community Radio, and other groups looking to involve youth in their operations.

"City council was the biggest draw for me. I wanted to feel a part of something bigger. The council makes lots of important decisions, and I thought it'd be great to share a youth perspective on some topics," he said.

A few weeks later all parties reconvened for a training session. The purpose? Solving entrenched communication barriers.

"We talked about perception," Houston said. "Youth have perceived ideas of what adults eat, wear, how they talk, what they care about. The opposite occurs, too. Adults have a misperception that kids don't want to be engaged. The first step was to recognize these perceptions aren't really true."

Bullock agreed that the generations are prone to talking past one another, but thinks it doesn't need to be that way.

"It can be like speaking two different languages," he said. "We grew up in an era of technology. They grew up in an era where you went outside and played ball - not to say we don't still do that nowadays. Things have changed, but there's always room for improvement."

Too often adults and youth let differing lexicons get in the way of mutual understanding, and the result, unfortunately, is stereotypes.

The incentive to prove them wrong contributes to Bullock's resolve.

"One assumption about youth is that we like instant gratification, for things to happen fast. If they don't, we give up. I feel I can be more dedicated than that," he said. "I'm willing to attend the meetings, even if none of it pertains directly to me. You never know when they might call on you."

Houston wants to keep the youth influx going, and eventually create a more permanent "youth advisory council" for area organizations to consult.

She referenced the Heart and Soul Project, which aims to tap into a more complete cross-section of Cortez residents - "more than the same ten people who go to all the meetings" - to see what they value and envision for their city.

"The idea is to extract those values and use them to drive future city planning. We're getting to the heart. And a big part of who is at the center of this community is youth," she said.

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