People of Juneau: Civics education advocate encourages involvement at young age

Marjorie Menzi has spent decades helping youth learn about Alaska, national government

Marjorie Menzi talks on Tuesday, June 19, 2018, at her Thane home about her work in government and teaching Juneau students about how their goverment works. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

When she worked in the Legislature, Marjorie Menzi lived a block away from the Alaska State Capitol. She could easily go home and eat lunch or do laundry during her lunch hour.

 

Though not everybody in town has as easy access to the Capitol as that, Menzi has spent decades trying to get people — especially young people — to realize that they have easy access to being informed about what their elected officials are doing.

“It’s like, there really isn’t any excuse for not knowing what’s going on in our state government and then nationally,” Menzi said. “We just hope that they’re inspired to understand that it’s our responsibility as citizens in a democracy.”

Menzi, now 75, has been heavily involved in the Legislature, the Department of Education and the League of Women Voters of Alaska (LWVAK) since moving to Juneau in 1971, and is still working to get young people informed and involved in government.

Her involvement in civics began when she went to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. At the time, she recalled, many people saw the only two jobs for women in grad school to get as either a nurse or a teacher. She chose to pursue teaching, and got certified as a social studies teacher.

She moved to Anchorage with her then-husband in 1967 before coming down to Juneau in 1971. She was focused on raising her children, but also immediately got involved with the LWVAK. Menzi said she appreciated how “dynamic” the organization was, and that the organization takes stances on issues instead of candidates.

Menzi was involved in the LWVAK’s state board before being hired by Rep. Bill Parker, D-Anchorage in the Legislature. She worked there in 1979 and 1980, and said it was valuable to get experience of the Legislature up close and personal. Seeing some elected officials working harder than others, she said, underscored the importance of voters making informed decisions.

In 1982, she was selected as the director of Alaska Close Up, which is a program that brings students together from around the state to learn more about government and about each other’s lifestyles. Menzi watched as children from the city (including her own) learned about life in the Bush and how white students learned more about Alaska Native culture.

From there, Menzi headed up or assisted with numerous initiatives to teach children about their state’s history and culture. She worked in Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer’s office, as well as the Department of Education. With the internet becoming more important and the state not having the funding to print its own historical textbooks, Menzi helped develop an interactive website and course.

Locally, Menzi has been vehement in her desire to get more young people to the Alaska State Capitol.

“Many of our young people never even get to go into a building like that,” Menzi said. “It’s very impressive, and we tell them, it’s their capitol. This is their capitol, this is their government and they’re responsible for what’s going on here.”

With support from the Alaska Committee — a nonprofit that works on initiatives that enhance Juneau as a capital city — the LWVAK began a program called Capital Students-Capitol Visits. This program takes all of Juneau’s eighth graders (about 375 students) through the halls of the Capitol. There’s more to it than that, as students study a bill that’s currently going through the Legislature and also pay a visit to the courthouse.

In giving a pitch to the Alaska Committee for the program, Menzi said, she focused on the importance of raising children with pride in their capital city.

“If you want to keep the capital in Juneau, the fact of the matter is, some of these young people have to know and appreciate what it means to live in the capital city,” Menzi said she tells the committee. “Part of that is knowing what’s going on at the capitol building.”

Though she and her husband Bill take a couple months each year to travel in their sailboat, Menzi remains active in LWVAK. One of their recent positions is supporting giving convicted felons the right to vote when they’re released from incarceration instead of making them wait to vote until their probation is over.

Most of the LWVAK’s initiatives are centered around voting, but Menzi said it’s important to convince people of all ages that getting involved politically takes many forms. When stoking governmental excitement in young people, she said, it’s important to show them that every voice matters.

“They need to understand and be empowered to take responsibility for our government,” Menzi said. “Voting is only the tip of the iceberg.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


• “People of Juneau” highlights Juneauites who add character and sunlight to our town. To nominate someone for a profile, email editor@juneauempire.com with “People of Juneau” in the subject line. Include your name, contact information, the name of the nominee and their contact information, plus why you think they deserve it.

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