Standing under the Gold Dome for the first time on Tuesday, diminutive teen B. Brackett felt intimidated, like a “small ant in a large world,” they said.
That didn’t stop the high school senior at Ben Franklin Academy in Decatur from knocking on Georgia lawmakers’ office doors to lobby them about bills that directly affect the state’s young people, like taxpayer-funded private school vouchers and gender-affirming hormones for trans youth.
The Gen-Z stereotype is that they’re too self-absorbed or glued to screens to engage in face-to-face interactions–much less confront members of the state Senate or House. Not Brackett and other members of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition—a grassroots group of LGBTQ+, Black and Latino students ages 14 to 22, which formed just a couple of years ago to train youth to organize.
Brackett, 17, spent their first day of lobbying speaking out against Senate Bill 140 on March 21, the day the Senate voted to send the controversial anti-trans bill, which bans gender-affirming hormone therapy or surgery for people under 18, to the governor to sign into law.
“I feel like this bill is based on a misunderstanding,” said Brackett. “Had there been a comprehensive dialogue between youth and [lawmakers], I don’t think SB140 would have passed.”
“I guess the reality is that even if you’re an ant, you still play a very vital part in every ecosystem. Every person—no matter how small you feel—is always needed. And so I came here today just to prove that I will not let ridiculous things happen here,” said Brackett.
According to GYJC, 3,300 Georgia students have participated in one of its advocacy actions since 2021 from high schools and colleges around the state, including Atlanta-area schools like the University of Georgia, Georgia State University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University.
A contingent of about 30 GYJC youth lined the halls of the Capitol earlier this week, declaring that it’s essential to get in the same room as legislators to make democracy work for them. After all, lobbyists don’t have to be well-paid adults in power suits.
“Actually being in the Capitol, physically in the presence of the offices where decisions are being made—doing what, basically, professionals do—is important,” said Mason Goodwin, a 20-year-old GSU student on GYJC’s registered lobby team who’s been at the capitol daily during the session.
“For them to see and talk to the people that these school-related bills are affecting is impactful because there’s no way for them to invalidate our lived experience in a school,” he said.
Even if that sometimes means getting occasional digs about their relative young age and inexperience. “I get pushback like, ‘Aren’t you a little young to be here?’ ” Goodwin said.
The session so far
The youth lobbyists have been very busy during the current 40-day legislative session. They’ve testified against a raft of education-related bills and others targeting teens, with mixed results. House Bill 147, which mandates annual intruder drills in Georgia public schools, passed despite their efforts.
They had better luck opposing Senate Bill 88, which would have prevented schools from recognizing a trans student’s gender unless it matched the gender on their birth certificate and also restricted teachers from discussing gender identity with students without parental approval. That bill died in the Senate last month.
The GYJC lobbyists haven’t yet given up hope on stopping Senate Bill 233, dubbed the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, which would give parents $6,500 per child annually to pay for private school tuition, using publicly funded vouchers that are tax-free.
The students say it would siphon essential dollars away from underfunded public schools. “We’d rather see that money just invested directly in [any] failing schools, so all students have opportunities, not just the select few who can afford to cover the rest of the costs for tuition for private school,” Goodwin said.
Average private school tuition in Georgia is $11,500. A House committee added an amendment to SB233 on March 20 that would prioritize students living in public school districts ranking in the bottom 25% on various state measures if applications exceed funds available. However, the bill does not propose a budget for the program, and its sponsors haven’t submitted it to the Office of Planning and Budget for its impact on the state budget.
The GYJC group’s first stop on Tuesday afternoon was the office of Michelle Au (D-Johns Creek). A dozen or so of the youth organizers packed into the room to introduce or reintroduce themselves to the state senator and chat about upcoming votes.
Au left the meeting impressed with their political moxie.
“Your generation and this cohort of activists you’re with is so far ahead of where me and my friends ever were,” Au told them. “People notice when you’re in the room—even the people who are not as inclined to listen to you guys on the issues, they can see that you’re here all the time. And at some point, that’s going to make a difference.”
Unlike most other lobbyist meetings under the Gold Dome, this one ended with a smiling group selfie to be posted on social media.
WHO IS A LOBBYIST?
The lobbyist stereotype is that they’re well-paid and well-connected people who use their influence and, sometimes, illicit cash, to push the agenda of the corporations or industries that pay them.
But that’s not necessarily the case. The National Conference of State Legislatures defines lobbying very generally as an attempt to influence government actions through either written or oral communication.
The Georgia Code defines a lobbyist as someone who gets paid over $250 or spends over $1,000 in a calendar year “to promote or oppose the passage of any legislation by the General Assembly, or any committee of either chamber or a joint committee thereof, or the approval or veto of legislation by the Governor.”
However, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, which regulates lobbyists, says that anyone who intends to lobby on government property must register and get an ID badge. (It currently has 1,089 active lobbyists registered, including the GYJC members, and 4,554 groups being represented.)
The ethics commission also requires lobbyists to file disclosure reports for each level of government that they lobby, whether the Legislature, a state agency, or a local municipality. Anyone can search the commission’s lobbyist database for lobbyists and the groups represented–as well as how much they spend and how much each public official accepts.