By: Trey Ferguson
I had lunch with a congressman, or rather a future one, this weekend. While volunteering at the N.C. YMCA Youth and Government Conference in downtown Raleigh this weekend, I was surrounded by high school students dressed to impress and equipped for debate from across the state. This annual conference allows students from all over North Carolina to participate in a mock legislative process, encouraging today's youth to be active in tomorrow's government. We all could learn a lesson from them.
My role in this process was coaching the students in the various media departments about informing delegates of the happenings at conference, while also being able to hold their peers accountable to various democratic actions.
Any time you round up a bunch of high schoolers, the level of propriety fluctuates, but the same could be said about our real elected officials. The bills selected for the conference ranged from serious solutions to humorous fun. Either way, each year, participants attempt to find at least one controversial bill that will spark heated debate. This year, that one bill went a little too far and sparked real controversy among students and advisers.
While the staff at the YMCA strives to provide an authentic experience for students and allow the natural democratic process to take effect in a safe, learning environment, this bill was pulled from the docket before further debate could escalate the problem.
My students in the media discovered this controversy and hungered to get to the bottom of the story. Their passion and determination led me to spend the next two hours hopping from adviser to adviser discussing how to uphold the experience without "executive censorship" and maintain a positive learning environment for the students. Ultimately, it boiled down to the First Amendment and the issue was addressed in a stellar two-part story by four very talented individuals.
I spoke with the state director about this story for their mock publication, and she explained how the YMCA was using this as a learning experience for all their students. One of the school advisers explained that this process was to show students the power of their opinion, and if they didn't like the bill, to "then shut it down."
This could not have been a better opportunity for students to see democracy, true democracy, at its finest. The people did not agree with a proposed policy, so they spoke out and "shut it down."The students in the media reported on this process and ultimately influenced the legislative body to vote down other controversial bills.
The take-away from this conference was passion. Students -- passionate about a policy, about a story, and about what their "government" was doing -- took action. Even if it was at mock level, many of these students will go on to become politicians and policy makers, and our government couldn't ask for any better.
One high school senior told me she hated how people in the so-called real world didn't take her seriously because of her age. People told her she couldn't make a difference because she was too young. I refuse to believe that. If these students who aren't even taken seriously in most political circles can grasp the key point of democracy, why is it so hard for us to do the same?
It is us adults who should be learning from these kids. We shouldn't be afraid to speak out for something we're passionate about. I've knocked the whole Occupy movement in many written columns and spoken conversations, but if they have one thing, it's passion. Our democracy cannot survive without passion.
The conference's slogan is "Democracy must be learned by every generation," and while in this respect the quote refers to the high school delegates, it applies to all of us. If we hope to move forward as a nation, we must re-spark our passion in our generation.