Pizza and Politics: NY Teens Meet with Local Elected Officials and Talk Issues

Public library program builds relationships and understanding of issues.

Like many public libraries, Sachem Public Library in Holbrook, NY, has seen a dramatic increase in the demand for community service programs for teens in grades 6-12. In our community,  teens are required to begin earning community service hours in middle school. Service hours are needed for class credit, to earn or maintain membership in honor societies, for religious ceremonies, college applications, scouts, and more. We offer a variety of community service opportunities every month, but we are always looking for new ways to provide meaningful experiences. While searching for new ideas a few years ago, we discovered a program called Pizza & Politics.

Pizza & Politics is not a new concept; an online search will bring up events for all ages dating back to 2008. The basic idea is to present an opportunity to speak directly with politicians in an informal setting and accessible format. While these events can been run for all ages, our library is connecting teens with community leaders, making them aware of how their communities function, and letting them know they have a voice that matters. Some people question why teens earn community service hours for this program as they aren’t doing hands-on "service." But we feel that the information not only has educational value, it helps teens get involved in their community and fosters productive members of society in ways they may not have realized were possible.

Since May 2017, we have hosted New York State Senator Thomas Croci, Suffolk County Legislator William J. Lindsay, and New York State Assemblyman Doug Smith. New York State Senator Monica Martinez is scheduled to come in October.

Goals

Our goals for the program are to help teens gain a general understanding of how politics work, show them how this impacts them and their community, and give young people ideas on how they can get involved. We really want to empower teens and make them aware that their voice can make a difference. We also see this program as an opportunity to be an “ice breaker” between teenagers and local politicians with the hope that meeting face-to-face will give the teens confidence to reach out in the future with questions, problems, ideas, or as volunteers.

Development & marketing

The first step is identifying a politician to host. Then, we reach out to their office to present the idea. Our library already had a positive relationship with Senator Croci, so we started with him, but every politician we have asked has been enthusiastic and happy to participate. They are excited to engage with and talk to the teenagers. The most difficult part is booking a date that works for everyone. The key is to reach out early and be flexible. You cannot expect to book a date around Election Day if you call their office with two weeks’ notice.

The program is 90 minutes to allow for eating and time to talk and ask questions. We always invite the politician to eat with the teens ahead of the “chatting” portion, and all have accepted. Eating first makes everyone more comfortable and avoids rushing through the program to get to the food at the end.

Once the date is booked, we create flyers, advertise in our teen spaces, and make sure the event is in our library newsletter. We do additional advertising on our library webpage and social media accounts. We have also connected with the Social Studies Honor Society advisors in our school district to help promote the program. Our school educators have been very helpful with encouraging their students to attend and participate.

Running the Program

Tips

  • When trying to book an event, contact their office well in advance and be flexible with dates and times.
  • Set up tables and seating in a way that encourages participation.
  • Have the pizza delivered so you are free to host the event. 
  • Have plenty of plates, napkins, tablecloths, and water on hand.
  • If possible, have extra staff available to help sign in teens, distribute pizza and keep things neat. (Have large garbage and recycling bins readily available.)
  • Have some questions or topics prepared in case teens need some help with ideas.
  • Allow time to take a group photo at the end.

As the date gets closer, we contact a local pizzeria to find out how much time they need to fulfill a large order. The tables and chairs in the room are set up in a rectangle or square so everyone is facing each other. Our invited guest sits at the table with the teens instead of standing on the stage or at a podium. This helps create a casual atmosphere and makes everyone more comfortable.

As teens sign in and sit down, we talk to them about who is coming, the format of the program, and remind them to think of a question to ask our guest. We have a prepared list of questions and topics in case teens need some prompting, but they have not needed help with getting the discussion started yet. At each event, teens have asked insightful questions on a variety of topics including school safety, the opioid epidemic, gun control, and abortion. We do not censor or control the questions, but we have had to limit the number of questions per student to ensure that all of the teens get a chance to participate.

The only adults in the room are the politician, their aide, and library staff. We do not allow parents or other adults into the program, because we want the teens to feel comfortable and safe asking their questions, whatever the topic may be.

We officially start the program with an introduction around the table and each teen gives their name, grade, and school they attend. Our guest will then start by discussing their background, how and why they entered politics, and what their job is on a day-to-day basis. Two of the politicians we have hosted graduated from the Sachem School District, which was a wonderful way to find common ground and connect with the teens.

After the introduction, teens are encouraged to start asking questions. There have been some hard-hitting ones, but we have also gotten more lighthearted questions about the politician’s favorite foods, sports teams, and amusement park rides.

Towards the end of the program, we ask our guest if there are any volunteer opportunities available to teens and for ideas on how they can get involved in their community. Their local political offices host different community events throughout the year that may offer teens the opportunity to volunteer. There are also intern programs at the county and state level for older teens that are great experiences—and can be useful on college and job applications. At each event, teens have stayed late to speak directly with our guest and get more information or advice. This is gratifying and shows us we have met some of our goals.

Program response

The response to the program from the teens and the politicians has been overwhelmingly positive. Although some teens initially sign up just for the pizza, the community service hours, or because a parent made them, most of them are engaged by the end. We also have young people who are interested in politics, have very focused questions, and arrive knowing this is an opportunity for them. It is exciting and rewarding to have all of these teens together engaging in discussions. The politicians have told us they enjoy the opportunity to meet and speak with this age group in a casual setting.


Laura Panter is the head of teen services at the Sachem Public Library in Holbrook, NY. Cara Perry is the teen services librarian at Sachem Public Library.

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