PORTLAND — Two teenagers are gaining valuable life experience this summer while learning their voices matter.
They recently returned from a student leader summit in Washington, D.C., where they met with members of Congress and other teens from across the country, and talked about how the public and private sectors can work together to tackle important issues.
Taking part “made me feel hopeful that the generation of today will be able to make meaningful changes for the better,” said Bilan Mohamed, 17, who will be a senior at Deering High School this fall. “In that space, I was reminded that my voice mattered and the voices of youth matter.”
Along with attending the summit in the nation’s Capitol, the two teens are also spending their summer working at Portland-area nonprofits.
Mohamed is helping out with a summer reading program at the Boys & Girls Club, while Reagan Brown, 16, who attends Portland High School, is getting a chance to see policy making in action at the United Way of Greater Portland.
They were chosen to represent Maine through the Bank of America Student Leaders program, which is designed to help “connect community-minded high school students to job skills development and community service,” according to a press release from the Portland Public Schools.
Brown and Mohamed were among 230 students who attended the leadership summit in Washington.
The Bank of America program consists of an eight-week internship and leadership conference that’s fully funded by the bank. This was the first year that Portland was chosen as a student leaders site.
“The student leaders participate in a paid internship at a local nonprofit where they learn firsthand about the needs of the community and the critical role nonprofits play, (as well as) learn valuable civic, social and business leadership skills” the School Department said.
Brown, who will also be a senior in high school this fall, said “I enjoy helping out at the United Way because I feel like I am making a positive difference in my community.”
She applied for the student leaders program at the urging of one of her teachers, and called the recent trip to D.C. “amazing.”
“I listened to many wonderful guest speakers, took a tour of Capitol Hill, spoke with Sens. (Angus) King and (Susan) Collins, saw many monuments and connected with over 200 other amazing student leaders from across the country,” Brown said.
“During the summit, I most enjoyed meeting others with different political views and gaining more understanding of them, as well as learning more about my own views,” she added. “Something I learned is that you can always gain valuable information by sitting down with others of opposing views and talking to them.”
Mohamed calls herself “very community minded” and someone who “was raised to give back to those around me. … I thought that this was a great chance for me to gain knowledge to better serve society.”
Prior to becoming a student leader, Mohamed had already started a group for young girls in her mosque with the goal of helping them “learn about their identity and the world around them,” she said. “I felt as though (the chance) for young girls to learn in a safe space was lacking, so I decided to change that.”
Along with focusing on improving reading skills for participants at the Boys & Girls Club, Mohamed said she’s being given “an inside look” of the business side of nonprofits.
“The whole experience has been insightful in many different ways,” she said. “Every day at the club brings something new. There’s never a boring day.”
Like Brown, Mohamed also enjoyed her trip to the nation’s capitol.
“This was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “I met so many leaders from different states who were making change within their respective communities. We talked about issues that impact youth everywhere, from mental health to identity and even how to use social media in a productive way.”
While she appreciated the chance to participate in a mock Congress, debating “current issues that our country is facing,” Mohamed said she most relished the opportunity to go to the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
And both girls said that the most important lesson they learned at the leadership summit is that everyone matters.
“Whether it be in voting or speaking up against injustice, every individual matters,” Mohamed said. “We have the power to change anything that we set our minds to, but it takes courage; (the) courage to put yourself out there, to speak your mind (and) to state your opinion.
“Your voice has the power to impact and change lives for the better,” she said. “We have the ability to create change, we just need to harness it.”
Portland students Reagan Brown, right, and Bilan Mohamed met with U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, in Washington, D.C., during a recent student leadership summit sponsored by Bank of America.