The Sun Youth Forum was established in 1956 by Las Vegas Sun founder and publisher Hank Greenspun.
Greenspun had a simple notion that adults should listen to the thoughts and opinions of youth — an elementary concept, yet given the times, a revolutionary idea.
After all, it was only 10 years after the end of the World War II, two years since the Korean War hostilities ceased, McCarthyism had dominated the early part of the decade and it would be several years before the baby boomers would be heard loud and clear.
In 1955, Bill Haley and the Comets topped the music charts, Disneyland opened, James Dean died, the Brooklyn Dogers beat the New York Yankees to win the World Series, “Gunsmoke” began a 20-year TV run and high school students attended sock hops on Friday nights. According to conventional wisdom, mid-1950s teenagers were supposed to reflect the social and political norms of their elders.
Then came Greenspun, and his assistant Ruthe Deskin, who believed that young people had something important to say, and under their stewardship, a 50-year tradition, known as the Sun Youth Forum was born.
“Listen to youth, for theirs is a wisdom untainted by cynicism, unbounded by pessimism and full of bright hope for the future,” said Greenspun, launching the Sun-sponsored program that brought together high-schoolers to discuss the issues of the day.
Over the last 50-plus years, there has been one overriding caveat to the program. Greenspun insisted that the Sun Youth Forum be purely a program where young people spoke and there would be no adult interference with their thoughts and ideas. The goal was for students to express their opinions and for community leaders to listen and learn.
The first Sun youth program featured 96 students from five different high schools. In those early years, the Youth Forum was a one-day program that included luncheon entertainment from the likes of Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Nat King Cole, Louis Prima and others. The afternoon sessions were followed by an evening banquet.
Throughout the years, many prominent community and political graduates of the Sun Youth Forum have returned to serve as moderators.
Other than adding sessions to each topic to accommodate the growing number of students, the format has not wandered from the original premise of being an outlet for students to talk about subjects that affect their lives.
Almost every high school in Clark County, using various criteria, selects a number of juniors and seniors to attend. At the Sun Youth Forum students and moderators are divided into small discussion groups according to seven topics: America, School Days (education issues), Teen Topics, Around the World, Law and Crime, Home in Nevada and Potpourri (a variety of current issues). Recent topics have included Yucca Mountain, gay marriage, the war in Iraq, terrorism, job outsourcing, abortion, the death penalty and school violence.
At the end of the sessions, each discussion group selects a finalist to represent the group’s findings in columns written for the Las Vegas Sun and in the CLASS! Publication or expressed on a television panel that is filmed by UNLV, or on a statewide radio show through the Nevada Broadcasters Association.
The success of the Sun Youth Forum — which is traditionally held the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at the Las Vegas Convention Center — is in part due to the on-going partnership between the Sun and the Clark County School District. The Sun Youth Forum has been the recipient of the Special Golden Press Award from the American Legion Auxiliary as America’s best local newspaper program for youth and has received a Community Service Award from the Nevada Press Association.