Students find political outlet in YMCA program

Youth & Government helps California teens find their poltical voice within their local communities
The Palo Alto delegation poses at the 66th annual YMCA Y&G Model Legislature & Court Training & Elections Conference.

Most Palo Alto High School students spend their after school time participating in activities such as arts, sports and tutoring. Less common, however, are the select group of students who participate in the California Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Youth & Government (Y&G) program.

This statewide organization is based upon the motto, “Democracy must be learned by each generation.”  According to the organization’s website, Y&G’s hands-on programs hope to engage students in civic responsibilities and promote activism and leadership. Approximately 3,000 high school students participate each year. The organization hosts a wide variety of programs including a Model Legislature & Court (MLC), a Model United Nations (MUN), a National Judicial Conference (NJC) in addition to the Conference on National Affairs (CONA).The MLC program centers around three main conferences. The first two gatherings, titled “Training and Elections Conferences,” (T&E) are held at Camp Roberts, a National Guard base in Paso Robles. Here, participants select a field of interest and learn more about it. Participants can choose from areas that range from national issues to State Assembly meetings. The third conference is hosted in Sacramento, where each delegate has a schedule tailored to his or her program area of choice.

In the months leading up to the statewide conferences, local delegations meet weekly to draft bills in preparation for Bill Hearing Nights, which take place at nearby city halls. Approved bills are then brought to Sacramento to be debated before delegate-run legislative committees. Bills that pass through committees are then debated on Senate and Assembly floors. The bills passed through houses and signed by the Youth Governor are then presented directly to California Governor Jerry Brown, carrying the weight of 3,000 high school voices behind it. This process not only teaches high school students about government functions, but also allows them to participate in real democratic decisions.

Senior Lande Watson has participated in the program since middle school. After six years in the program, she notes that her involvement plays an influential role in her life.

“I’ve always been interested in government and being an active member of my community,” Watson said. “I can honestly say that out of all the activities I’ve participated in, Youth & Government has had the greatest impact on my personal development and my life in general.”

At a T&E conference her junior year, Watson founded a mentorship program designed to promote female assumption of leadership roles, called Female Leaders in Power (FLIP). After noting that she was one of three girls out of 14 total candidates running for Youth Governor, she created FLIP to help inspire young women in the program and strengthen their leadership skills. Over the last year, FLIP has made leaps in its growth as a program.

“This year the mentorship program grew to include over 120 female delegates,” Watson said. “We hosted events at all three conferences, including a female leadership training and a women in leadership discussion. At our final FLIP session in Sacramento, [California’s] Secretary of State Debra Bowen came to speak about female leadership.”

Two years ago, Watson inspired her close friend and fellow Paly senior Kelly Patterson to join the Y&G program.

“[Watson] knew I was really passionate about social issues, specifically gender equality, and she thought I would really enjoy the program,” Patterson said.

Patterson noted that the FLIP sessions hosted by Watson were a highlight of her Y&G experience.

“It’s just really cool to see your friend in a leadership position where she’s inspiring girls to run for positions or even just stand up to talk,” Patterson said.

For Patterson, Y&G was not only a learning experience, but also an opportunity to gain confidence in herself.

“The biggest thing I’ve gained from the program is the confidence to express my opinions,” Patterson said. “Y&G provides this really encouraging environment where no one really judges you and people really listen to you whether they agree with you or not.”

Junior Adam Asch agrees that Y&G has boosted his self-confidence and opened his mind to world issues.

“[Y&G] has given me confidence… and an [interest] in the world at large and all [its injustices] as well as a passion for repairing them,” Asch said.

Senior Hannah Wilson, who was also influenced by friends to join Y&G, agrees that the social environment of the program is a major highlight of the program.

“It is a fantastic community,” Wilson said. “You are able to meet so many people from all over the state and really get to know the delegation.”

For its participants, Y&G is more than just an after-school activity. It is an opportunity to voice their opinions so they will be heard. The program helps foster critical public speaking skills and well-rounded political views.

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