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Eastern Washington Legislative Conference 2024

Youth give share concerns on community and hope

Ellis Benson and Rachel Muhr discuss faith perspectives.


Four young adults shared their hopes for their lives and the world in the opening plenary of the 2024 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference (EWLC) on Jan. 27 at Spokane Valley United Methodist Church.

Anastasia Wendlinder of Gonzaga University's Religious Studies Department and member of the EWLC planning committee, guided their discussion.

The panelists were Rachel Muhr, a junior at Gonzaga majoring in English and secondary education; Ellis Benson, a Lewis and Clark High school student and youth organizer with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane; Jasper Willson, a senior at Washington State University in environmental studies, and Taylor Licon, a sophomore at Gonzaga who volunteers with people in the intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD) community.

Rachel is Catholic. Jasper is Jewish. Ellis and Taylor are agnostic.

Taylor Licon and Jasper Willson committed to keep working.

Anastasia opened with several questions: "What does the world look like to you? What issues are of concern to you and why?

Despite challenges, Taylor feels hope for the world, especially for the IDD community, which is often pushed aside.

Jasper focuses on the environment, which she considers "the scariest issue." She does that because "it's hard to hope if we are not working on it."

Ellis is hopeful despite an increase in isolation, a decline in community, an escalation in global conflict and concerns about climate change.

"When we lose community, we lose so much. Community teaches us to have empathy for each other," she said, aware that people searching for community online can be good or can lead to online echo chambers—where people hear only opinions like their own—and radicalization. "We need to interact with people with different values on a daily basis, or we can lose empathy."

Rachel's Roman Catholic faith guides her to form relationships, and know who she is, who God is and how the world works.

As a future educator, Rachel said relationships are important. She is concerned that youth suffer disillusionment, disenfranchisement and discrimination. We must build up our communities and converse on issues to take care of our common home."

Ellis is aware that her generation can easily isolate themselves. "If we go online, we may think we are not isolated and have community, but we need real community. Isolation breeds fear and more isolation. Community should be based on trust and companionship."

With K-12 students, Rachel sees the impact of isolation and COVID on mental health because students did not interact in school, sports or faith communities. She knows kids who post every day and get caught up in bullying, isolation and discrimination. "I see 12-year-olds do horrible things to other people online."

Ellis said high school kids scrolling their phones in the halls and in class may be a sign of boredom, which could also lead them to talk with those nearby.

Jasper suggested that if people talk to each other, they find they have common concerns and then can work to improve the environment.

During COVID, Taylor found the IDD community felt isolated in group homes or their parents' homes. Now they go bowling or do karaoke for social interaction, and see others like themselves.

"The IDD community is active on social media. Many like media. Unlike many, they use social media to uplift and support each other," she said.

Taylor uses social media "to share my voice and the voices of those in the IDD community. I use it to interact with those who don't have positive interaction in the world."

As a journalist and documentarian, Jasper said her relationship with social media is complex. It's one of the ways to get information out.

"In my career and in my organizing, I need social media to share information," she said. "It's hard to balance using it for organizing and for relaxing because algorithms feed me more of what I do in organizing."

Ellis stepped back from social media this year, but PJALS uses Instagram to organize, so she has to check it, limiting herself to 15 minutes a day.

Rachel didn't go on social media until high school, when she began using it to connect with people.

Anastasia then asked participants the impact of their faith and values on their lives and concerns.

Rachel said she was nondenominational Christian until she was eight and baptized Catholic.

"My family had a strong emphasis on faith and having a right relationship with God. I believe I need to show my relationship with God in a way that benefits others. Faith is not about agreeing with people or God. Faith moves us to make up and have better relationships," she said.

For Ellis, faith is "having trust in something larger than yourself. I don't have a religious faith, but I have a faith in humanity and in my work. I think humans are inherently good, not inherently bad. Conditions make us do bad or greedy things. I have faith in my neighbors and fellow activists. That drives me to do my work."

Faith is an interesting concept for Jasper as a Jew living in a Christian culture.

"Judaism is not a choice. It's who I am and will be. I don't worry about being right with God. I have faith humans will do the right thing," she said.

Taylor, who is agnostic, did not grow up with religion, but as a child carried a giant Buddha with her everywhere.

"I associate faith with hope. Faith is believing in something so hard it drives one's soul. The IDD community has a variety of religions. I'm open to learning and I'm hopeful," she said.

Anastasia then asked: "What is the role of religion? Are you looking for a spiritual practice that corresponds with your social justice?"

Ellis said her focus is on activism and justice.

Taylor values human decency, kindness and being welcoming, not putting people in a box.

In her final question, Anastasia asked: "What do you want the world to look like?"

As someone who hikes and enjoys being in nature, Taylor hopes people will work to preserve and improve the environment. She also hopes for stronger community, both online or in person.

Jasper wants people to keep working on behalf of the environment.

"Some say the world will be destroyed so what is the point of trying," she said. "I believe there is so much that can be done. Every little bit matters. If we have community connections, it's never too late to do something. You never know what will come from what you do," she said.

Seeking to end mass incarceration, imperialistic oppression and environmental destruction, Ellis' hope is that people will connect with neighbors and build community.

Rachel's hope is for more love.

"Love means we put heart and soul into what we do. When we have love and direction for that love, I have hope for the future. Love doesn't stop. It has to keep going and going," she said.

The EWLC24 videos are available HERE or at

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March 2024