In an age of social media posts and hashtag movements, writing a letter to a politician might feel old-fashioned, even quaint.
Still, nearly 700 Utah teens recently took to pen and paper — OK, keyboard and word processor — to draft letters to their elected leaders in the preferred medium of Alexander Hamilton himself.
The Founding Father was known for writing essays, articles and letters, many of which have been digitized by the Library of Congress. So when the touring company of “Hamilton: An American Musical” announced plans to stop in Salt Lake City, the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts capitalized on the hype and sponsored a letter-writing initiative.
The New Nation Project, funded by the Utah Legislature and the Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County councils, challenged teens in grades 9 through 12 to write to local politicians for the chance to win Hamilton tickets.
The rules called for the letters to educate elected leaders on a topic the teen cared about and to propose a solution. The dispatches were then drawn at random to determine which students won tickets to attend the show at George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater with their legislator, council member or mayor.
One such winner, Highland High School student Camille Whisenant, attended the performance Thursday with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
The senior wrote her letter after a teacher prompted her language arts class to participate in the project for extra credit. Still, Whisenant said the experience was personally satisfying too.
“What’s great about letters is that you’re writing directly to someone,” Whisenant said. “Posting on social media is much more like shouting into the void. A letter is specific and I think that’s more helpful.”
Whisenant wrote of the “school-to-prison” pipeline, where students are funneled from public schools into the juvenile and criminal justice system.
The 18-year-old volunteers on the Salt Lake Peer Court, designed to block that pipeline and emphasize student discipline without involving the criminal justice system.
“These students are being failed by a system put in place to protect them,” Whisenant’s letter to Biskupski states. “Thankfully, you have the power to combat the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and I’m grateful to see that you have taken action.”
Biskupski said Thursday that students’ letters demonstrated that they understand the concept of liberty and justice for all, and that there are systems in society that work against them.
The mayor said she was touched that students chose to write their letters directly to her.
“Part of what I love about the work I do is having the ability to mentor,” Biskupski said. “The fact that young people know who I am and are paying attention means a lot.”
Though the New Nation project used “Hamilton” tickets as an incentive, the project goal was also to get kids to learn who represents them in public office and become engaged in the civic process, according to the state website.
Utah state Sen. Kevin T. Van Tassell, R-Vernal, was not planning to attend the New Nation event because of the Republican Convention on Saturday. He said he reconsidered when parents called en masse to tell him how hard their students had worked to earn tickets.
To have five or six kids from his district selected, Van Tassell said, “that’s kind of exciting,” after years of hosting students on tours of the Utah Capitol.
He said he has not listened to the Broadway cast album, but when his wife found out he would be going, she decided to come along.
Van Tassell asked Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, if they were going to be disappointed in the show.
“If you don’t like the show,” Dabakis told him, “I’ll buy your ticket.”
Unlike Van Tassell, Whisenant saw “Hamilton” in New York with standing-room-only tickets, she said, adding that she was thrilled to see numbers like “Hurricane” again. Whisenant said she fittingly thought about the song, in which Hamilton contemplates writing his way out of a problem and to a better future, while composing her own letter to Biskupski.
Whisenant felt she could relate to the song’s sentiment. The senior never bothered to submit her letter to her teacher for the extra credit.
That wasn’t the point, she said.
Tribune reporter Ellen Fagg Weist contributed to this story.