When she isn’t writing her weekly political column in the school newspaper, competing in model United Nations, or running her own nonprofit, Hockaday student Mary Orsak is working alongside other high school students on the Dallas Youth Commission, which aims to give voices to those who aren’t yet old enough to vote.
Orsak, a rising junior, is one of 30 students in the program who meet monthly to discuss various issues that need addressing, then split up into their respective committees for more specific briefings. The students often have other educational events listed on the agenda. Last meeting, for example, Dallas police and fire departments briefed the commission on the work they do.
The youth commissioners have been appointed by the city council members of their respective districts.
“It’s not just her résumé on paper,” said council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, who appointed Orsak to represent District 13 last fall after putting out applications to high schools in the area and conducting interviews. “She’s just well spoken and personable and cute as a button and extremely impressive.”
Orsak, whose affinity for politics inspired her to apply, is the chair of the education committee, and has been working to improve the lives of Dallas ISD students. This fall, she and the other members of the education committee will visit schools all over the city and conduct surveys to find out what students want and need most.
“We want to address a lot of the problems that we see in DISD and come up with plausible solutions that can be effective in almost any school in the district,” Orsak said. “How can we adopt things from some schools to work in others?”
The privatization of Fair Park has also been a prevalent conversation topic among the committee, and Orsak believes it could be useful in unifying a city that’s recently faced heartbreak and division.
“We’re talking a lot about using the Fair Park space as an opportunity to host events and hopefully foster a really great environment,” she said. “This summer we’ve obviously seen a horrific tragedy downtown with the loss of police officers, and there’s a divide between the African-American community and the police department. We want to bring them together to really look for the best of the city. I think this fall that will be one of the issues we try to focus on. How can we bridge east and west, north and south, and bring these communities together to foster the best Dallas possible?”
Gates believes that Orsak has global passion and understanding that most children her age haven’t yet grasped.
“Hopefully she’ll be able to use all her talent for the betterment of the community because I think she has the passion to do that,” Gates said. “She’s this tiny little thing, but so powerful and she’s got such a big heart.”
Through her work on the commission, Orsak is learning leadership skills that she’s putting to use in her own organization, Story Power, Inc., which strives to improve the lives of girls by providing libraries with more books about inspiring women.
“I’m learning more about how to listen to the constituents and my peers. How can I translate their wishes into actual city actions?” she said. “One of the biggest things we have to do is sit down with the students and say, ‘What do you need? How can we benefit you?’”
It comes as no surprise to Gates that Orsak aspires to pursue a career in civil service.
“She’s very politically active for someone who can’t even vote yet,” Gates said. “She could probably do whatever she wanted.”