Mabel Gonzalez Nunez is a pretty typical American teenager. She likes Kanye, Big Sean and Drake, works extra hard to keep her grades up (she's an honors student), and participates in the student council at her high school in Mattapan, Massachusetts. But, as the first teen to ever hold the position of Change Agent Facilitator at Boston's Youth Lead the Change program, Mabel is also in charge of helping Boston teens spend $1 million of the city's money.
On May 29, all of Mabel's hard work will pay off when an thousands of young Bostonians will vote on proposals created by - yup - other young people. [Update: Since this first story was published, similar projects are starting up in Seattle and possibly Baltimore.] Proposals on how to spend the cool mill include projects like building new parks, renovating dance studios, and providing more water fountains wherever young people hang out.
MTV News spoke with Mabel about how she got involved with Youth Lead Change, Boston's Participatory Budgeting initiative, what her friend's think of the gig, and what she would spend the cash on if it was totally up to her.
MTV: Hey Mabel, thanks so much for talking with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Youth Lead Change?
NUNEZ: I became involved in Youth Lead the Change (YLC) through my job with the City of Boston Department of Youth Engagement and Employment. I then became a Change Agent Facilitator, helping my peers to express and transfer their ideas and into tangible project proposals. Through the meetings I host, I aim to guide my peers through various data sets and site visits, so that they can better understand the feasibility of the projects to be included on the ballot. This is the first time in Boston YLC history, that a young person has filled this position, and it has been a great way for me to become more familiar with the initiative and give back to my community.
MTV: What are your responsibilities like?
NUNEZ: As a Change Agent Facilitator for Youth Lead the Change, I ensure that all Change Agents (the young people who volunteer and develop project proposals) are on task and that deadlines are met. I also work to ensure the pipeline of communication between Change Agents and City Officials is open and consistent. As a Social Media Manager, it is my goal to implement youth friendly language to raise awareness and build on our outreach efforts, so young people can relate to our initiative and get involved. I carry out a lot of social campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and I find that a lot of young people respond well to that kind of outreach.
MTV: What do your friends think about your involvement with the mayor's office?
NUNEZ: My friends have been really interested in my involvement, and become even more excited when they hear about Youth Lead the Change. Many of them have taken advantage of the opportunity to submit ideas and vote. I can tell from their enthusiasm that they’re passionate about this initiative. When I share new things going on with YLC, something sparks in them. They immediately want to learn more about the process and how it works. Mayor Walsh is showing us that the government cares about us, and that our ideas aren’t just passive -- they’re active.
MTV: What have you learned through working on the Participatory Budgeting Initiative?
NUNEZ: I've learned a lot! I've learned how the fiscal year works for the budget office in the city; I learned how capital projects and policy work; I've learned what goes into a capital project--contingencies, such as different operational costs that are affiliated with our ideas.
MTV: How do you get other high school students involved?
NUNEZ: I mainly reach out to other students via social media and word of mouth -- having casual conversations, sharing where to get more information; going back and forth with them online about YLC.
MTV: What have you learned about engaging teenagers in the political process?
NUNEZ: I've learned my peers, young people, do care about politics and what happens in society, but often times there are barriers -- either we are not old enough, or elected officials don't listen to us, or adults just see us as potential trouble-makers. This ultimately leads to less participation. I have found, however, that with Youth Lead the Change, young people have become excited and involved, because they can vote, submit ideas, and participate throughout the entire process, not only just during one phase.
MTV: How many people do you anticipate will turn out to vote and what do you hope the outcome is?
NUNEZ: It is my hope that at least between 3,000 and 4,000 young people come out to vote. Under Mayor Walsh’s leadership, Boston is the only city doing a process like this in nation to involve young people. I really hope that young people truly understand that their voice is valid: they do matter to elected officials in Boston, and their ideas can cause our communities to thrive. We have the power to make a real difference, here.
MTV: If the vote was totally up to you, what would you spend a million bucks on?
NUNEZ: If the vote was totally up to me, I'd spend a million on water bottle refill stations, with the exception that they’d exist in all Boston parks. A lot of parks don't have them, and it can be difficult to find water in the parks. I'd put them in every park.
MTV: Whats the next step for you? Do you want to always work in politics?
NUNEZ: I'm going to Northeastern University next year as a Torch Scholar. I do not wish to always work in politics, although I'm passionate about advocating for young people's rights. I do, however, want to work with refugees in third-world countries and advocate for their rights.
MTV: Any tips for young people who want to do what you’re doing?
NUNEZ: I encourage young people to get involved in their community: find out if there is a youth council, or youth programs to get engaged. Reach out to elected officials and let them know about participatory budgeting and how successful it has been in Boston. Spread the word: government is most effective when democracy is brought back to the people!