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Teen organizer shows youth can make a difference

Elise Coffin waits apprehensively at the State Capitol for the results of the vote on the Safe and Supportive Schools Act in April.

She’s door-knocked, phone-banked and organized trainings. She’s worked for two highly successful campaigns. She’s lobbied at the State Capitol and knows her representatives by name. 

Elise Coffin is already a grassroots organizer, and she’s only just graduated high school. However, Coffin, who is passionate about grassroots movements, knows her learning is far from over. She’s decided the next step in her learning is a week-long leadership training program.

The training is sponsored by National People’s Action, a national coalition emphasizing justice, be it racial, economic or another form. Coffin first heard of NPA’s training from her coworkers at OutFront Minnesota, an NPA affiliate that sponsored the recently-passed Safe and Supportive Schools Act.

“It will help me become more efficient as an organizer,” Coffin said. “That, in turn, will help me be more effective in helping others.”

Duluthian activist Gary Anderson worked with OutFront Minnesota and attended NPA’s leadership program last summer.

“It was really amazing,” Anderson said. “I was in a room of 65 of the most diverse group of people I have ever spent time with, as far as age, gender, race and national origin. It was enlightening.”

Anderson has worked with Coffin since she first showed an interest in grassroots activities with the “Vote No” campaign.

“I watched Elise come in as a junior in high school to volunteer,” Anderson said.

“I watched her grow and develop her skills to the point where she and I co-facilitated a teen training program for leaders from across the state. Her collaborating with me — I’m an old, middle-aged guy — really speaks to her flexibility, willingness to learn and her innate skills. She’s an amazing young woman. I’m very grateful she’s doing the work that she’s doing. Whatever she does is for the benefit of the rest of us.”

Coffin began working with Anderson as a volunteer for the Vote No campaign, which opposed a state constitutional amendment limiting the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

“It was when we won by a really small margin (52.6 percent) that I realized how important my work was,” Coffin said. “If it hadn’t had thousands of people like me calling people trying to change their minds, the bill probably would have passed.”

She then moved on to the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, leading youth from Duluth to take part in the campaign, as it would directly affect them.

Coffin and Anderson created a student group to lobby, and Coffin collected signatures and support at her high school.

“Legislators wouldn’t have voted the way they did if we hadn’t pushed and allowed people’s voices to be heard,” Coffin said.

Anderson has high hopes for Coffin, and said he believes this training will assist her on her path.

“I hope she comes away inspired to take action on issues that are important to her,” Anderson said. “She will not only gain a whole new set of skills, but also create relationships with other leaders from across the country.”

Coffin hopes to raise the $600 needed to attend the conference through donations on her kickstarter webpage, GoFundMe.

“It’s hard to go to family and friends for money right after I’ve graduated,” Coffin said. “It’s a lot of money to ask from people. But I think it is an investment, a good investment. If I go to this training, I can help with bigger issues as they come down the line and be a voice for other people.”