We’re all familiar with the common stereotypes of today’s teenagers: Apathetic gamers or superficial social butterflies. The characterizations are particularly unfair when measured against a growing local phenomenon called Kids Speaking Up.

Co-founded in 2004 by sisters Isabelle and Sophie D’Arcy and their friend, Ben Raderstorf, Kids Speaking Up’s mission is to keep youth well-versed on current issues. Sophie is a freshman and Isabelle a senior at Dos Pueblos High.

With the help of about 40 student writers, the sisters publish an annual magazine full of essays, poems and opinion pieces covering a wide variety of topics. They have started KSU discussion groups at Goleta Family School, Goleta Valley Junior High and Dos Pueblos.

This year the group will be publishing its fifth magazine. Sarting today, Noozhawk will publish weekly submissions from KSU student writers in the School Zone section. Click here for Sophie D’Arcy’s first column.

“It would be (articles) that are more about current events and opinion pieces that maybe wouldn’t work for an annual magazine,” Sophie said of the articles KSU will designate for Noozhawk.

We sat down with Sophie, and briefly with Isabelle, to discuss the intricacies and motivation behind taking on a project like Kids Speaking Up.

How did KSU get started?

Sophie: In 2004, my sister and I and a boy named Ben Raderstorf in Boulder, Colo., were talking about the election coming up. We were all pretty young but we were still talking about it, and we noticed that a lot of kids around us didn’t seem to care about the issues.

We wondered why and we found that it’s because they’re unaware and they’re not educated as much as they should be. So, we founded Kids Speaking Up. Isabelle started a group out at Goleta Valley Junior High and I started a small one at Montessori Center School.

What is KSU?

Sophie: Kids Speaking Up is a nonpartisan group dedicated to combating ignorance and apathy in young people, and we educate ourselves about different social, national and political issues. We also publish an annual magazine with kids’ writings about issues that are important to them so they have an outlet where they can speak up about the issues that they care about.

What do you think it is about the younger generation that makes it uninterested in serious issues?

Sophie: I think a lot of them aren’t aware of these issues. It’s like, ‘Wow, really? That’s going on? No one ever told me about this!’ Just like any generation, teenagers in general have a hard time seeing and thinking outside their bubble and their own lives. It’s hard to see the big picture.

Isabelle: I think it’s really just not yet personal to people. A lot of times when you’re younger you haven’t really had experience and can’t see the direct connection between the issues — political and national, global and environmental — and your own life. I think as you get older things become a little more apparent, whether it’s issues with your school, with the government or funding or anything.

How many students are collaborating on this project?

Sophie: Probably like 40 writers total, estimated. A lot of them come from the Kids Speaking Up groups. Last year I announced it in the English classes at Goleta Valley Junior High and got a lot there, just from students.

What are the ages of people who are submitting?

Sophie: We had elementary school kids; our youngest one year was a first-grader, but it’s not usually that range. It’s usually fourth grade through 12th grade.

What’s the breakdown of topics students write about?

Sophie: We take as much as we can because we want to give as many kids as possible the opportunity, but we have a limited amount of space. We try to pick the pieces that really go to the heart of the issues.

What do you personally like to write about?

Sophie: Both my sister and I usually write a couple of pieces. Personally what I like to write about? I’m big on women’s rights issues, a lot of social issues, just about corruption in government and how things are run, how we can be more efficient. I’m interested in that.

Is there staff helping you out?

Sophie: It’s pretty much just us. Isabelle and I try to keep things running as smooth as possible. Daniel Richmond does the Web site for us — he’s in eighth grade now. He was doing it for us last year in seventh grade. He’s really good at the computer stuff.

How do you distribute the magazine?

Sophie: When we go to events we usually have a couple copies on tables, around the schools we try to have them out and about.

How much of a commitment is this for you and your sister?

Sophie: We have a group that meets once a week. We have groups at Goleta Family School getting started this year, one at Goleta Valley Junior High still going and at Dos Pueblos. We meet once a week and we have speakers come in, or we make presentations ourselves or we have members make presentations, which they really enjoy.

Then usually around winter we start fundraising for the magazine and getting people to write and collecting the pieces to start the magazine.

Tell us about the fundraising part of it.

Sophie: Well, we basically go around to private donors and businesses. We actually started out the first year with The Fund for Santa Barbara. They helped fund us the first year on our magazine — it was their idea to do the magazine. From then on we just did it ourselves. It’s hard but any support is welcome.

Raising money for the magazine is tricky, but we try to start early so we catch people in the giving mood of the holidays. We get a lot of support from the community.

What kind of feedback have you been getting?

Sophie: We get a lot of good responses. People really like what we are doing and feel really hopeful because I think they see a lot of people in our generation really apathetic. I feel like our generation could be really mobilized in getting aware of these issues.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve come across with KSU?

Sophie: Probably letting kids know it’s OK to be aware and it’s even fun sometimes. We try to make the meetings fun, just try to plan activities. Sometimes it’s hard, especially in high school. Everyone wants to socialize with their friends, so that’s been tricky.

We wear our T-shirts on the days of the meetings so people are like, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ and then we explain. We get a lot of our friends to come and people are like, ‘Hey, where are you going?’ We usually bring brownies or cookies.

What happens at the KSU weekly meetings?

Sophie: Meetings are at lunch. It’s pretty short, actually. A 30-minute lunch is hard, especially when we have speakers coming.

Who have you had come to speak?

Sophie: Isabelle’s group had someone to speak about Blackwater last year and we’re trying to get an Iraq war veteran. We had someone speak from Pacific Pride. This year we have a speaker from the Obama campaign and we’re trying to get someone from the McCain campaign.

Last year we had someone come from an organization called Everyday Ghandis. They help rehabilitate boys who used to be child soldiers in Liberia, and that was really powerful.

Does the group do anything outside of school?

Sophie: Sometimes we go to Direct Relief to volunteer.

Are you a 501(c)(3)?

Sophie: No, we actually have been talking about doing that for awhile but we haven’t actually done it. We should do it, because we don’t make any profit on this at all.

Have you considered expansion?

Sophie: I don’t know how much farther we’re going to get. We had a booth at Earth Day and we did a lot of distributing. We try to get people involved but it’s tricky to branch out, especially because we are so busy with school.

You aren’t graduating for three years, but are you thinking already about who will take this on once you are both gone?

Sophie: I’m going to take a lot more leadership over it now that Isabelle is (graduating). In the next few years I’ll be keeping my eye out for someone who could take that on and could lead the whole group, because it’s a lot of responsibility.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at mhelmuth@noozhawk.com.