Growing up in the Upstate of South Carolina wasn't always easy. I was (and am) lucky to have good friends there, but it's a small world. Sometimes that's a good thing. People are generally nice to each other, at least in public. Issues are usually simple. You never hear anyone say "oh god, not another sushi restaurant." More than anything else, it's home (well, mostly, but that's getting a bit beyond the scope). A small city in a small state. Home.
It's also the great nexus of post-Atwater, mean-spirited politics, the home of Bob Jones University, and suffering from sprawl issues that will make Atlanta look tame by comparison. So how did I get here? How did I end up the political creature I am today? Three words: Youth In Government.
Setting the stage with a bit of biography
I'm a thirtysomething South Carolinian who is unapologetically liberal. I come from pretty good stock: my mother was basically a hippie, my father is a solid progressive, my grandmother insists that she was a true liberal in the 1930s (not her words, but that's the implication). My childhood friends ran the gamut: a couple of good leftists, a lot of '94 Revolution Republicans. I know, like, and respect Bob Inglis (ultraconservative Republican Congressman from SC) and Jim DeMint has always been perfectly pleasant to me. You might say that I have a tolerant view of a lot of Republicans as people because I was completely surrounded by them as a teenager.
Indeed, I was briefly in Teen-Age Republicans. Gasp! But all my friends were doing it. Sadly, that's about the most rebellious thing I did as a teenager.
Politically, I like to think that my beliefs arose directly from my upbringing. I was taught to respect people. I was taught to believe in justice and equality for everyone. I was taught to treasure the natural beauty of the world. I was also taught to hunt and fish.
The development of my political beliefs, no matter how linked to my parents' lessons, occurred against the backdrop of the Youth In Government program. I participated starting when I was 15, and I've continued to be involved as a staff member and a board member until the present. I owe a tremendous debt to my experiences in that program and to its director not only for who I am politically, but also morally, ethically, and socially. Aside from my parents and family, it was probably the most significant thing I did as a teenager.
So, what is it?
In South Carolina, Youth In Government ("YIG") is a program sponsored by the Greenville County (SC) YMCA. In other states, it goes by the name Youth And Government and, rumor has it, at least one instance of Youth 'n' Government, but one can only hope that the rumor is wrong.
YIG is not Boys State or Girls State. It is open to anybody. Among the 1,200 or so student participants in the SC program are high schoolers from some of South Carolina's finest private schools, some of South Carolina's poorest (in a financial sense) public schools, and everything in between. Students join a YIG program at their schools, or, if no program exists, can start a program themselves.
There are two slogans that are passed around as embodying the YIG ideal:
- Democracy is not a spectator sport
- YIG is a student-run program
YIG exists to help high schoolers become involved. It's not just a political-awareness organization. It's also a leadership program, a social group that brings together people of diverse backgrounds from all over the state (and the country). It's fun, it's educational. It is, I think, essential.
I'd like to know more...
YIG's headline program is the annual Model Legislature, which brings together over a thousand high school students in Columbia to simulate the state government. Students serve as legislators, attorneys arguing constitutional issues, judges, and elected office-holders. The staff are all college-age alumni of the program (not all of the YIG programs have this system).
During the Model Legislature, students sit in the actual SC House and Senate Chambers, argue for bills in actual committee rooms, and advocate constitutional principles in actual courtrooms. Student legislators are responsible for crafting a bill that they present to the General Assembly. Student lawyers craft their legal arguments based on cases and other materials that they receive prior to the conference. Aspiring elected officials sign up with one of the parties (Palmetto and Crescent) and do all the usual things (at least the ethical ones, we hope) necessary to get votes from other participants in the program.
There are additional programs as well. There's a Middle School Model UN, a Middle School Model Legislature, and various satellite programs, such as the Horizons Values Conference and, in the past, the EnviroAction environmental awareness conference. The agendas for all of these programs are set by students. The volunteers and staff are there to facilitate, advise, and keep the participants safe and secure during the conferences. All of them - students, staff, and volunteers - do an exceptional job.
Every year, the national organization hosts the YMCA Conference on National Affairs ("National Affairs" or "NA" to us oldsters, "CONA" to the more recent participants). This program brings together hundreds of YIG participants from all over the United States at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, NC. It is very much like the Model Legislature, in that students prepare "bills" on an issue of national importance and advocate for their bill in sessions of the entire body of participants. It's educational, it's fun, and it's incredibly rewarding. Some of my dearest friends are people I met at CONA back in 1991.
Occasionally, there are truly extraordinary opportunities. I had the extraordinary experience of participating in an exchange program with Bulgaria when Bulgaria was still technically a Communist country. With the help of incredible people in the community, we hosted a number of Bulgarian teenagers at a conference in Columbia, SC and then visited Bulgaria for a month to learn about the culture, live in the homes of our former guests, and experience life that was both unlike and surprisingly similar to the lives we knew in SC. It was a revelation to see that Bulgarian teenagers listened to good music and worried about girlfriends and boyfriends just like we did.
One more note about the Bulgaria trip: we were given the opportunity to visit the Bulgarian Parliament along with our hosts. This is something we take for granted. Anyone can walk into the US Capitol or our respective state capitols any time and look around. We can sit in the gallery and watch the legislature in action. For us South Carolinians, this was no big deal. Hell, we'd sat in the same chairs our legislators use when they're doing the real work of governing. But for the Bulgarians ... they'd never imagined that they could touch their government. They were simply ecstatic. That profound love of the practical reality of democracy has stayed with me undimmed to this day. As imperfect as our system is, well, it's better than most of the alternatives.
So why is this important?
It should be pretty clear why this is important. Turning young people into active civic players is profoundly necessary for our democracy to keep functioning. YIG is, of course, a nonpartisan program, and many of my friends from YIG are currently involved in efforts to renew the Republican Party. Some of them remain dedicated to the old Republican Party. And some of them worked every single day to get Barack Obama elected.
But more than that, YIG alumni receive an education in how important it is simply to remain involved, to volunteer for community organizations, to advocate for the issues they think are important. I, of course, favor liberal ideas, but I would be happy to lock horns with and occasionally lose to someone who understands what democracy really means in this country. Someone who plays by the rules that our Founders set up. Someone who respects dissent and celebrates democracy itself. Someone who understands that justice isn't just a word.
I remember an epic battle to create a mission statement for our YIG program. We argued and argued about whether YIG was an organization to create political actors or whether it was something much more. I don't remember if this phrase made it into the final version, but we finally agreed that YIG existed "to create leaders, from the living room to the board room to the General Assembly."
So it's a leadership program?
Well, no, not entirely. It's also not a debate club. People certainly pick up leadership and debating skills when they're arguing controversial issues and learning how to make change they can believe in. But it's more an education in how to be an American or, more accurately, how important it is to be involved, how important it is not to sit back and observe, but to take hold of the process - whatever process it is - and advocate.
I am a fan. If you'd like to get involved, you can try to find your state's program. Many organizations, South Carolina's included, depend on donations to provide scholarships for students who can't afford the program fees. You can encourage your kids to get involved or to start a program in their schools. YIG needs people - adults and young people - in the community to support the program politically, so that the programs can continue to use the state's facilities. But, most importantly, YIG needs enthusiasm, among schools, among the community, and among young people. Our democracy is fragile and it is precious, and YIG plays a key role in making sure that today's young people become tomorrow's leaders, tomorrow's advocates, and tomorrow's informed voters. You and I won't be around forever, and we have a duty as citizens of this country (and other countries that have similar programs, including various programs in Canada and Australia) to give young people the chance to learn how important it is to add their voices to our democracy.
Democracy, after all, is not a spectator sport.
PS. I'm posting this at perhaps the worst possible time for pageviews, but I will try to add other diaries explaining other parts of the program in more detail in the future.