Transcript: Student Forum With Candidate Debbie Bertlin

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Victor Raisys, the owner of Island Books, introduces the event. Photo courtesy Bharat Shyam.

On Oct. 20, senior Lila Shroff moderated a Candidate Forum at Island Books with Mayor Debbie Bertlin, who is running for re-election as mayor on Nov. 5th. The aim of this conversation was to engage the youth on issues that matter to them and help students understand the importance of local politics.

Several students from MIHS attended, asking questions that dealt with student stress to climate change. 

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation between Bertlin, Shroff, and the questions that MIHS students asked. 


Bertlin: Many people ask why are you running again? To put it succinctly, there is more good work to be done. We can frame it in terms of some of the challenges and issues the community faces, but generally I think Mercer Island is an amazing place to live, to work, to grow up, and to raise families in. I hope the last 8 years is a reflection of how I roll, which is integrity and transparency and quite frankly, real honest and straight talk. I wanted to have this younger group here. Part of my next 4 years, if I am so fortunate, is to make sure we are bringing in the new generations that have diverse and fresh perspectives. Young people that see and identify problems a little bit different than my generation.  

Lila: About a month ago, there were the climate strikes. A lot of students, especially at the high school, walked out of school to protest. What steps do we take to prioritize tackling climate change locally on the island?

Bertlin: There’s moments that I suspect all of us have in our memory where we say “wow, this is pivotal.” And there’s been a couple of those in recent years, and this was certainly one of them. When you see the youth around the world standing up united saying there is no Planet B, it brought a deep resounding emotion and acknowledgement. 

At the same time, the great part of this question is how does Mercer Island play in? Some people may argue that these are bigger issues we need to address at the state or national level. My point is that it all starts at home. It all starts right here and how we express our values. 

When you’re on city council there is always the question, “what can the city do?” and “how can you actually use your office to advocate for good?”

The city has done some real work these past few years. We’ve been doing a lot of things regarding general sustainability, whether it be the lighting fixtures at Town Hall or the plastic bag ban. We have signed the PSC agreement that gets energy from renewable sources for the next 10 years. So that’s all well and good, but what really is going to move the dial in terms of community? 

First of all, the number one emissions of greenhouse gases is transportation. It’s cars. So what options do you have on Mercer Island, in particular, of all places to do something other than drive up and down the island and/or on and off the island in your car. I think this is one place where the city has a big role. In particularly with the negotiations with Sound Transit and metro. We need to make sure people can get on the train and get on the buses. If there’s bike paths that are safe, because a lot of reasons people don’t bike right now is because they don’t feel safe. The other thing to keep in mind is that metro buses are largely fossil fuel based. They want to move to all electric fuel in next 20 years. This is a place where the community has an opportunity to stand up and support this. 

So you start looking at the transportation and say, “how do we create more options?” How do we make sure that the students who are going to Bellevue College can get there. Is there a bus route? Is there a shuttle service? Are there eBikes that can take you down to the buses? Do we have a shuttle that can allow teachers to get off at the Light Rail station to get down to Lakeridge or IMS? 

The other part of it too is what can you do to create policies. The other part of the emissions equation is buildings. How do we get energy? We, on Mercer Island, are not building a lot of green houses but we sure are remodeling. How is that reflected in our building codes? Are we supporting fuel efficient appliances? Are we encouraging green housing practices? 

To me, what may be the most interesting, is the partnerships. It’s not always the city that leads. For example, the Lakeridge Green Team came to our council and they were talking about how we are going to advocate to reduce the use of Styrofoam. 

What I would love to hear is what groups and organizations are going to come to the city and partner with the city so that we can really drive this into every corner. This would be a call to action for a lot of the students here: what do you want to see happen in your community? Where do you want to see the city put some of its energy and effort to? And let’s figure out how to do it. This is a chance for you to teach us what’s important and where you want to go because there is no Planet B. 

Shroff: What types of opportunities would you create for youth to take on roles in leadership? 

Bertlin: You take the role of leadership when you organize climate action days. You take the role of leadership when you publish in your newspaper. I would say that there’s always the boards and commissions, and we’ve tried to keep youth and have youth on our YFS board and the library board when it was active. However, it seems like some of the spontaneity and creativity fades when it becomes a city or group thing. 

One of the things that I would throw back to you is bring the council in. Ask us to talk about some of the issues that we struggle with. One of the great things about being mayor is that you get to go to the Civics class at the end of every semester. Boy do I learn a lot from the seniors in terms of what the issues are because there are themes that come out. 

One of my favorite things is when the second grade teachers asked if I could come in and teach about government and then the students come to City Hall and we hold a mock council meeting. Some students got to be council members and pick topics, some were the city staff, some were concerned citizens, and some wanted ice cream to be free on every Wednesday. What I found, after having run these mock sessions, is that they said “wow, I learned a lot.”  

Encourage and invite your city council in. I think there are a lot of people that don’t understand what cool careers there are in the local government. 

Shroff: I know within our school community earlier this year we had Dr.Luthar come in and she started talking a lot about these issues of school stress and academic pressure, especially within the high school. I know these are issues that really resonated with a lot of the students. The school has started to take steps to address the issues, but what would the city do to help?

Bertlin: That is a fabulous question and I think it is one everyone on this island needs to stop and think about. I don’t want to say it’s a crisis but there is a real set of issues here and I’m super glad to see David D’Souza from the school board here as well.  

One of the key things Dr. Luthar said that Mercer Island can do is to model nice behavior and respectful behavior and positive conversation and dialogue. Based on her research, there seems to be a lack of that here. I think we all know that there have been instances where our community has not been tolerant or respectful to diverse opinions or perspectives. 

More practically, we have a youth and family services organization and the city does provide counselors through YFS. They have also been promoting positive norms. I think there is a conversation for the city and the district to be having about how it is we are modeling positive and constructive communication. I don’t think this is just a city issue. This is truly a community issue. 

One of the things I do feel very strongly about is when you see it, speak up. When you are on the city council, when you are on the school board, when you are in any position as an adult with opportunities, you need to speak up and say this is not okay. 

I attended MIHS and when I was in high school, I wrote a letter to the editor. It was about feeling a lot of pressure to perform. When I was a senior in high school, I was anorexic. I got down to under 100 pounds. I was in the hospital a month before I went off to school. That was how I internalized the pressure. I know its different now, and perhaps more intense because of social media. But this is something we have got to surface and talk about. For all of this that live model lives, we all still struggle with issues on a daily basis. Mental health is an issue in all our families. We can’t continue to pretend that we are all perfect. 

Adam Kipust, senior: There are students struggling emotionally. There are suicide rates increasing. Mercer Island students above average in vaping and binge drinking. We have had these counseling services in schools the past few years. Yet obviously, there is something missing. How do we find out what’s missing and how do we fix that? 

Bertlin: Going back to Dr. Luthar’s report, one of the things she studies is the problems of youth in affluent communities. You see more of the binge type of activities. One of the first things is to acknowledge we have an issue. I was stunned and amazed to see that a parent bought two kegs for a freshman homecoming party. There is a role for parents to talk to other parents and say “that’s not ok.” Until we have some real frank conversations about acceptance and tolerance and welcome, it’s tough. 

There are a number of parents who talk about the stress their kids are under because it’s college application season. How do you say it’s all okay? 

I’m open too. This is part of where I’m exploring. My daughter is a freshman, so some of the issues and culture at the high school are new to me. I’m ready for a conversation and to talk together about these issues. 

Eden Voss, junior: We have a big problem with mental health at our school and I just wanted to hear you elaborate a little more on what parents can do. How do you make sure parents are educated on mental health so they can help students? 

Bertlin: Parents Edge does a great job, but one of the challenges is that the people who come to Parents Edge are the people who already recognize there is an issue. How do you get to people who don’t recognize or who are busy? I think this is where some of the kids voices are important. Students who are willing to say mom and dad this is going on and I need help or I need you to help. 

There is no one solution, but your efforts have resonated so much when you walked out on Friday. And now I’m asking you as students to raise your voices around this issue as well. I think there needs to be some heart to heart conversations. The school district is responsible for educating the students, which begs the question, who is there to educate the parents? Is this community ready to go there? I know I am, but I don’t have the perfect answer. 

Shroff: I want to say thank you again for giving us this space. As you are all hearing, there are a lot of students in the community who do have thoughts but don’t always have a platform to do so. 

Youth civic engagement is important for a number of reasons. It’s a bit of a cliche, but a lot of the decisions we are making right now are decisions that our generation has to live with. On top of that, it allows students to develop a skill set that is valuable in future communities. When you have youth that are active and civically engaged locally, this can transition to a much larger scale. I think that valuing and respecting youth voice gives the message that they are an equal community member. 

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