Blog post by Christian Gerlach
On February 18th in Las Vegas the office of Senator Harry Reid, the office of Congresswoman Dina Titus, and the Deputy Director of the Department of the Interior Mr. Michael Connor held a public meeting dubbed “Conversation on Conservation”. The event was an opportunity for me to engage some students of Valley High School that I had worked with in the past on various service projects. I had been in talks with their teacher Tillie for some time about some projects to engage her kids with, so when the word of this hearing came out, I thought it the perfect opportunity to engage these youths. I came up with the idea of presenting Tillie and her students with a civic engagement project, to show them the processes of government in action. It was also a perfect opportunity for the students of Valley High School to voice their love of their collective backyard that is the unique public lands of Southern Nevada.
The kids were eager to get on the bus to the courthouse and lined up almost immediately after the bell. A few of the student’s event went even as far as to dress up in their Sunday best for the fieldtrip. Once on the bus I gave the kids some idea of what to expect and to rally their spirits I led them in their school cheer, “Valley! Vikings!”. A few of the students expressed their eagerness to speak on behalf of the places they hike and camp with family and friends. However that enthusiasm waned once the students walked in the room full of people. Many of the students were used to speaking in public, but mostly to their fellow classmates, so when they saw over 200 people in attendance, their confidence was a bit shaken.
As the meeting went on, I could see the student’s interest peak with slides showing the impressive monolithic artwork “City” by artist Michael Hiezer, the ancient petroglyphs dating back thousands of years in the Gold Butte and Basin and Range areas, and the breathtaking landscapes of our majestic public lands. Not a one of them was on their phone as I would periodically peer over to supervise the 32 students under my charge. I was filled with a sense of pride for these amazing students, but what happened as soon as the floor opened up to the public for comment surprised me most. The voices that were so fervent moments before on the bus ride over fell silent. None of the students could muster up the courage to speak. I was able to speak to a few students and did my best to encourage them speaking and to ignore the crowd. Finally when they persisted in their refusal to speak I gave encouragement and let them know that it is ok to be nervous and they did not have to speak if they had changed their mind.
At that moment a young man that was very quiet the entire time saw the opportunity to represent himself, his school, his teacher, and the lands he goes exploring with his family almost every month. The young man Darren quickly grabbed a spare sheet of paper and asked me a few questions to clarify and refine what he wanted to say. He then took a number that one of his classmates was holding, and he marched up to the line to speak at the mic. As the line slowly went forward, I could see Darren reviewing his notes, and then it was his turn.
Darren confidently addressed Congresswoman Dina Titus as he thanked her for the opportunity to speak and explained that he was speaking for his classmates and teacher from Valley High School. Darren went on to explain how he was an immigrant from Cambodia and how his parents made the difficult choice to come to the United States to try to provide a better life for him and his older sister. Daren went on about how he and his family maintain their strong family ties by communing together with both nature and one another on Nevada’s spectacular public lands. This, Darren explained is what he admires most now about his new home country, “the beautiful landscapes that he wants to continue to enjoy” and how he hopes that everyone else will be able to continue to enjoy these lands indefinitely if we act to protect places like Basin and Range and Gold Butte. As Darren left the microphone the crowd and his fellow classmates cheered for him for both what he said and for showing the courage to speak.
After the event I made it a point to follow up with Darren’s teacher Tillie. Tillie shared with me some insights with me about Darren. She informed me that Darren actually suffers from autism rather severely. His fellow classmates often dismiss what he says as his impairment has made it difficult for him to communicate effectively. Darren often says things that strike the other students as a bit off. However Tillie also shared with me that after the public hearing something had turned around for Darren that day. His fellow classmates started to show him a lot more interest and respect. Rather than dismiss him when he misspeaks, they laugh it off now. Tillie noticed a significant improvement in Darren’s mood and demeanor. She even told me how Darren had told her that he is look forward to speaking any chance he gets. Tillie said Darren doesn’t know to whom or where he’ll speak publicly again, but he knows he just wants to speak. When Tillie asked what he wants to speak about, he said the things I love, like my family and the places we love to enjoy together.