MANSFIELD – Mansfield area leaders were “blown away” by the country’s youngest generation Wednesday.
About 40 Richland area high school students and similarly-aged students from across the country met and engaged in conversations about their communities at Idea Works on West Fourth Street, a fitting location given its role as a co-working space for business professionals, entrepreneurs, and innovators.
The event, a half-day program called Student Intersections, was presented by Interlocal, an enrichment program for students in and around Richland County, and the Richland Source, headquartered inside Idea Works.
The day was aimed at encouraging conversations among local teens and teens from across the country.
“It was so interesting to watch young people from all over the country sit together and talk about so many different topics,” said Nikki Lewis of the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Lewis, whose organization includes the local Young Entrepreneurs Academy, helped facilitate one of three small group sessions, covering topics concerning Richland County’s rust belt legacy -- specifically the effects of manufacturing and entrepreneurship on Richland County’s economy, how identity relates to place and what young people can do to create change.
She found Generation Z is much more than their reputation – lazy and unaware.
“They are so much more aware of what’s going on in this world than they get credit for,” Lewis said. “They are curious; they are excited; they want to make change and are willing to have those taboo conversations that adults won’t have.”
She recalled one student who asked if Richland County had a diverse population. Earlier in the day, during a speed networking event, another asked Lewis about her political views and if she felt comfortable expressing them in the community.
“To know that these young people are politically charged. And to know that they want to create change, they excite me, and I know our future is bright if that’s even a fraction of what the next generation looks like,” Lewis said.
Visiting students came from places like New York City, Philadelphia and other cities across the United States. Their organization’s leadership, which requested anonymity for student safety, is leading more than 20 teenagers on a tour of the Midwest region. Mansfield was just one of many stops on their two-week journey.
“We realize that these conversations are valuable to students,” said one of the event organizers, Allison Bates, founder of Interlocal. “Even if were only connecting local students, it’s a worthwhile exercise and one that can shed light on different perspectives and allow students to further a mutual understanding of each other and their individual experiences.”
Bates brought the concept to the Richland Source, and the two organizations worked together to create a program that would be beneficial for both groups of students.
One of the visiting students mentioned “the opportunity to become exposed to a variety of perspectives” as her favorite part of the event in an anonymous survey.
Mansfield’s Eden Stanfield, who participates in Interlocal, enjoyed the conversations with people from other places. She recently returned from the Dominican Republic, where she studied abroad for a month.
“I found it interesting that kids my age are so involved in the community, and they know so much about their government and what their communities need,” she said. “They are so aware of what they need and how they are able to influence change.”
Lexington’s Seth Overholt, also of Interlocal, saw the same in his conversations.
“I liked when we got into the three groups and could talk about the economy, politics and the issues that we all face.”
After overcoming a mix of fear and excitement, he learned that despite their differences, he had more in common with the other students than he expected.
“We’re from different regions, but we’ve got these commonalities,” he said.
At the beginning of the event, students broke into groups of three to six and were asked to find things they had in common.
“And of course, at first they came up with really silly things, but then they realized that maybe they have more in common than they thought,” said Lewis, who helped with the ice breaker.
Presenter Brady Groves of the Richland County Foundation and Jason Crundwell of St. Peter’s School were also impressed.
“The level of knowledge and engagement by everybody has been amazing,” Groves said. “People question what the youth of today will look like tomorrow, and I think we’re in pretty good shape based on this group.”
Crundwell led a session about how to make a difference.
“These teenagers are more engaged and more aware of the world than most people think,” he said. “In asking them one issue they want to change, they were at least acutely aware of the problems facing their generation when they become adults. One student even knew that the debt was going to be a problem for them.”
When students brought up school violence, Crundwell listened.
“They feel like they aren’t being heard,” he said. “And some feel they’ve got their message across and still nothings being done.”
He encouraged them to continue.
“You have to keep failing to succeed, keep running that message up the flag pole, keep getting louder and stronger because eventually they’ll have to hear you, and eventually, you’ll be old enough to vote to make a difference,” Crundwell said. “The things you challenge today will become things you can change in the future.”
The program ended with a walking tour of Mansfield, led by Downtown Mansfield Inc. Students stopped at the Brickyard, Richland Carousel Park and the Little Buckeye Children’s Museum.
“Some of them were like, ‘We don’t have to go, do we? We could stay here all day,’” Lewis said after seeing their reaction to the tour.
This event was sponsored by the Richland Source due to its connection with its Rising From Rust Solutions Journalism Project and Interlocal, a Mansfield-based nonprofit organization with a three-pronged program meant to introduce 9th through 12th graders to international enrichment and civic engagement opportunities via presentations, site visits and international trips.
Read more about Rising From Rust at richlandsource.com/rising_from_rust.
And learn more about Interlocal or sign up for next year’s program at gointerlocal.org.