A page passes notes between members of the Assembly. Amanda Font/KQED
A page passes notes between members of the Assembly. (Amanda Font/KQED)

Youth Program Lets Teens Take the Reins of State Government

Youth Program Lets Teens Take the Reins of State Government

In a legislative session in the California Assembly chambers, speakers weigh the pros and cons of amending California's Paid Family Leave Act. They propose extending disability compensation for new parents or people caring for a sick relative to 12 weeks, instead of the current six.

From the viewing gallery above the mint-green-and-gold room, the business attire-clad group look and speak like typical legislators. But you didn't vote for them, and most aren't old enough yet to vote themselves.

Youth Program Lets Teens Take the Reins of State Government

Youth Program Lets Teens Take the Reins of State Government

They're high school students  who have come from all over the state as delegates to the 69th annual California YMCA Youth & Government Conference, referred to often as Y&G. The program teaches teens about the processes of state government by letting them build one and run it over a four-day weekend, out of the actual state Capitol building and the nearby convention center.  This year there are nearly 3,500 students, or delegates, attending.

Each morning of the four-day conference, the students get up early, wait in long lines for a Starbucks cuppa', and scan the thick schedule book to figure out in which room they'll spend the next few hours.

Sponsored

Delegates willing to put in the leg work can campaign and run for elected positions like speaker of the Assembly, chief justice, and that most prized seat of leadership: youth governor. Some assume traditional legislative roles in the Senate and Assembly, or as members of the judiciary. Others act as political party leaders or members of the press corps.

A poster encourages delegates to leave notes about what they've learned at the Youth & Government Conference. (Amanda Font/KQED)

Jared Savage is a lobbyist this year. It's his fifth, and "unfortunately," he says, final conference.  He flags down delegates to sign an initiative to provide 20-minute nap periods to students to help them focus and recharge. It's an idea that's already catching on.

A graduating  senior, he heard about Y&G through a different program in the Weingart Urban YMCA  in South L.A. He joined for the same reason many delegates expressed: He wants to have a say in how he's governed.

"If we really want to live in a society that we can love and appreciate," says Jared, "we have to be the ones that help create the rules."

Jared turned 18 before the 2016 election. "Getting to vote for the first, I wish, female president was really exciting," he says. Even though the results weren't what he wanted, he's proud to have voiced his opinion. That's something he's learned to do in part because of Youth & Government.

"As far as our political climate, of course the tone has changed. But no one has been afraid to speak their mind," he says. "And that's really awesome, because that's been consistent from when I started the program."

The focus on teaching the teens how to develop, debate and give voice to what they believe in is, in essence, what the program is all about. That leads organizers to set up some more creative program areas that don't have real-life counterparts.

One of those is the Constitutional Convention, nicknamed "Con Con." Here a group of about 250 delegates set out to boldly establish the brand-new state of California. They can push the limits of their imagination with any idea they can come up with — from hiding the appearance of testifying witnesses to prevent racial bias, to scrapping the idea of paper money in favor of a barter system.

Then for each of the hundreds of proposals, two speakers for and two against debate the merits. With handmade signs bearing their names, other delegates question them. These exchanges can get really passionate.

In one session, a delegate proposes that California provide comprehensive sex education to all high school students. In this case, the pro speakers clarify, that means including information about LGBT students' experiences.

The floor opens to questions and a delegate says, "I would just like to point out that people are taught straight sex in school as a means of reproduction, not recreation. So, like, I don't see how other kinds would be necessary."

The crowd buzzes a bit and Charlotte Emerson, a speaker in favor of the proposal, lets out a quick, strained sigh.  Someone calls out for "decorum." Then, collecting herself, Charlotte responds.

Charlotte Emerson at the conference. (Amanda Font/KQED)

"You can't just say that, like, sex is just for reproduction. It's something that people do and we need to accept that in our school systems."

Nearly half the people in the room raise both hands and start fluttering their fingers while she speaks. This is known as "spirit fingers," and it's a way the delegates demonstrate support for what a speaker is saying without interrupting. Spirit fingers are everywhere at the Youth & Government Conference, which took place the last week of February.

Charlotte has been in the program for four years, and is the president of her South Pasadena YMCA delegation. She says she became interested in politics after running for a statewide office her freshman year.

"Coming home, reading the news, being informed. It's exciting to be informed," she says. "I thinks that's a large part of it for a lot of people."

Though the majority of sessions are entirely delegate-run, there are some 400 advisers and program directors here to offer support if needed. Many, like Tim Brice, are former delegates themselves. He runs the Con Con program. Brice has been involved with the program since 1984, when he was a sophomore in high school.

"I've taken one or two years off in that time," he says, but "I've been volunteering since 1989."

For the student participants and adult volunteers, the Youth & Government program is more than just an extracurricular activity. For some, the experience shapes the trajectory of their lives.

A note left on the "In Sacramento I Learned ..." board. (Amanda Font/KQED)

On Sunday night, the final evening of the conference, the thousands of attendees fill one giant hall in the convention center for the governor's banquet. It's at this dinner that each delegation delivers its votes, convention-style, for the next youth governor.

When the outgoing governor tearfully calls for a motion to end the conference, the "nays" are a resounding majority. The conference must end anyway. Friends hug each other; graduating seniors cry and reminisce.

In a few months, preparations will begin for next year. Many will come back to Sacramento  as delegates, some in a few years as advisers. And maybe, in the future, a few will return to the Capitol as elected officials.