Future leaders of America, including many from South Pasadena High School, are descending upon Sacramento this week to take part in the YMCA’s 71st Model Legislature and Model Court.
Along the way, the 117 delegates from the South Pasadena/San Marino YMCA Chapter will join more than 3,000 others from throughout California to become youth delegates at the state Capitol from Thursday through Sunday, learning about government through a hands-on approach by making use of both the Senate and Assembly chambers, along with conference areas in neighboring hotels.
Area teens have been meeting on a weekly basis at the local YMCA and attending statewide conferences in anticipation to it culminating with a trip to Sacramento, where they will dress the part of governmental officials, wearing business attire, and pack hotel meeting rooms as they will play the role of the state legislature.
Delegates representing about 100 YMCA’s in the state are guided by YMCA’s motto, “Democracy must be learned by each generation.” They come to the conference with model legislation and, in some cases, are put on the Assembly and Senate floor with students acting as assembly members and senators. At the same time, there is a model court where students are given an opportunity to become familiar with California’s justice system.
The program features a model court, including bench trials, judicial review, appellate and supreme courts. Students work in a variety of roles, as pages, lobbyists, legislative analysts, national issues commissioners, state board members, constitutional convention members, members of political parties, the Department of Finance, in polling programs, chaplains, historians and journalists in both print and broadcast media.
Highest ranking officials, or the executive branch, are teens carrying the title of youth governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. For the most part, it’s all business, as the students must follow the strict dress code and zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior. Twelve advisors, including adult community members, past delegates and YMCA staff, will join the local contingent in Sacramento.
In all, more than 4,000 people, including volunteers, will take over six hotels in the downtown and outlying areas of Sacramento.
“We’re giving high school students the ability to critically think about, discuss and debate policies, laws and regulations they find interesting,” explained Jordan Bell, the South Pasadena/San Marino teen program director, who oversees the local program. “We’re turning out more informed voters, young people who can think critically about ideas and have an honest debate on a topic. I always tell the students to debate the issue, not the person. We want a rationale debate where you still respect the person across the aisle.”
Launched in the mid-1930s by Clement Duran, the YMCA director from Albany, New York, wanted to find a meaningful experience for young people and inspire them to become active and concerns citizens in government.
The program spread quickly to surrounding states and made its way to California in 1948, winning the support of then Governor Earl Warren. He established a statewide committee of leading citizens, state officials and legislators, who worked as consultants to YMCA youth officers and conducted training sessions for the young delegates.
Over the years, California YMCA Youth and Government has provided learning experiences for more than 100,000 high school students.
As a cause-driven organization, the YMCA focuses on youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. The Youth & Government program is designed to provide positive opportunities and experiences for students. Those in the program strengthen their communities by becoming active and responsible contributors to society. YMCA professional staff like like Bell and Wes Cram, the South Pasadena/San Marino YMCA senior program director, a former delegate who served as a volunteer for 13 years, and is going to Sacramento as a first-year paid staff member, hope the young delegates become inspired to lead, and empowered to make a positive difference for others.
Youth & Government prides itself in offering lasting skills to help youth transition and succeed, learning leadership, public speaking, core values, teamwork, study skills, critical thinking, greater understanding of civic engagement, research and writing, and addressing issues on statewide & national levels.
The conference ends with a Friendship Circle, where delegates reflect, not only on the four days spent in Sacramento, but the weeks and months leading up to the culmination of the Youth & Government program.
“There’s usually a lot of crying and hugging,” explained Bell, noting it can be quite emotional. “But it really speaks to the social and family aspect that is built over the time they’re together.”