Political polarization can dilapidate things fundamental to our well-being as a collective species: compassion, empathy, and too often, kindness itself. As a highly politically active, activism-oriented seventeen-year-old amidst our current national divisions, I am thrust right into all of this. These core facets of connection and understanding are harder to come by, because it is difficult to be compassionate when our political figureheads, our representatives, often engage in petty squabble.
What made me reject this toxic way of being was a program called Youth and Government. Youth and Government is a national program run by the YMCA, with state chapters, and many smaller city-based delegations within states. In the beginning of my junior year, a friend of mine pushed me straight into the program.
As a generally quiet yet profoundly opinionated, passionate girl, I was both hesitant and curious to join such a unique program. Youth and Government a program that cultivates maturity, connection, growth, and self-awareness. Within a few months I was no longer the soft-spoken one in the back of the room – I was in the first row, raising my hand to debate on bills and speak up.
The program allows high school students to engage in a model legislature and court. It is called a model program rather than a mock program because, as delegates, we aim to represent the highest norms of integrity and democracy; to work together, to seek to understand rather than defend, to listen rather than to be self-righteous. It is a program that supports socioeconomically disadvantaged young people as well, with an extraordinary financial aid program that delegates themselves fundraise for.
2016 was my first year, but I ran for office, and I had a chance to visit different delegations throughout the LA area, speaking with them, learning of their visions for this program that allowed them to genuinely generate ideas and share them effectively. I won the election, and never have I felt so fulfilled or surprised in my life. The notion that even those with differing political opinions than mine, that those of different identities and backgrounds, would listen to me – a shaky, ranting, newbie – taught me that when we allow young people to feel like they matter, like their ideas and thoughts mean something, we shape the future. We shape the present.
I asked some of my friends about their experiences with Y&G, and Austin Astrup, President of the Culver-Palms Family YMCA Delegation, put it perfectly: “Y&G has given me the opportunity to make life long connections with students from completely different backgrounds. The program has pushed me to have an open mind and to take risks. I would not be who I am today if I never joined Youth and Government.”
We make real legislation that goes to the governor of California. We include everyone in our traditions. We change each other’s lives, and we change our own.