On a frigid day in early January, a sixteen year old girl trotted up the steps of the state capitol in a very professional and not at all warm skirt. Inside the Capitol, the committee, court, and legislative rooms and offices had been taken over by high school students from all over the state. It was Youth In Government weekend in Minnesota.
“Minnesota YMCA Youth in Government is a youth-led, experiential learning opportunity that involves 2,500 middle-school and high school students each year. It is a nation-wide program, active in nearly 40 states.” Started by the YMCA in 1936 in New York, the first Minnesota YIG Model Assembly was held in 1946. This weekend saw over 1,400 students from all over Minnesota gathered in St Paul for the State Conference. Students in grades 8-12 are able to participate at various levels in the program. “Minnesota is among the top programs nationally in terms of quality and number of students involved. 60% of participants and 55% of youth program leaders are girls. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of all eligible students return the next year. Minnesota YMCA Youth in Government builds a sense of responsibility and passion for issues, the desire to make a difference, citizenship skills and values in the lives of teens.”
I first learned about YIG when I was in 8th grade and some delegates came to speak to my civics class. In 9th grade, I was a participant. I am truly sorry to say that I remember little of it, as a boy I liked happened to be in the program with me and I was rather distracted the whole time. I am pleased to say that most other participants had more focus than I did. What I do remember was being in awe of the immense process that is our government. I remember listening to bills being presented and hearing my peers debate them with poise beyond their years. I remember having to navigate St Paul on my own to get lunch and dinner every day, and being responsible for getting myself to all of my meetings on time. Quite the experience for a fifteen year old.
Today, I had the opportunity to step inside YIG again for a few short hours. As a community Board member for the River Valley YMCA, I was invited to take a tour of the program in operation this weekend at the Capitol. Our tour guides were our youth Board members, Sadie and Grace, who are also YIG participants. They completely blew me away.
These two young women guided a group of adults through the State Capitol, answering questions about the program, their involvement, and what it has meant to them. Their poise, confidence, and intelligence were surprising and inspiring. Is it weird that I want to be more like them when I grow up?
I asked Sadie what had interested her in YIG in the first place. She had two older brother who had participated in the program, and she was struck by the changes she saw in them every time they came home from the program. She could tell they had grown more confident and were happy. She joined the program in 8th grade “because they wouldn’t let me yet when I was in 7th.” This is her fourth year in the program. She sits on the Commerce Committee and is running for an elected office, which she would then hold next year. I asked her if the program had changed her ideas about what she wanted to do with her life. She replied that it had, though she wasn’t totally sure what she wanted to do yet. But YIG had taught her a lot and expanded the possibilities for her. “It’s given me a lot of confidence in myself and given me networking skills…because with running for things you have to network…it’s a lot, running a campaign is a lot, but it has given me a lot of skills that I don’t even realize.”
Orville Lindquist, State Program Executive for the YMCA YIG Program, has been with the program for over twenty years. He told our group that when he started out with the program, he thought he was teaching kids about politics. Over the years, he has come to realize it is much more than that. These students come to YIG and learn how to speak respectfully with each other, how to listen to each other’s ideas and opinions, and how to be successful adults. As he put it, many of these students have never had to share a room, have never been responsible for getting themselves out of bed on time in the morning, and have never had to manage money on their own. At YIG, they have to do all this and more. They have to do their homework on bills or trial cases. They have to dress professionally and be on time. They gain confidence in public speaking and in themselves.
A lot of time, staff, and resources go into making this program a success. The YMCA is dedicated to being open to all students, regardless of family income levels. “The YMCA does not turn away participants based on ability to pay the full tuition.” Students are able to apply for Thrive Scholarships through the YMCA as well as for financial assistance through the YIG program itself. One Thrive student had his bill pass while we were there. He was ecstatic and already preparing for the next speech he would have to give. These scholarships are made possible though donations to the YMCA. Youth in Government is one of many programs run by the Y that go beyond the four walls of a gym. If you aren’t familiar with them, I highly recommend going to www.ymcamn.org to learn more. The YMCA is not just a fitness center and a pool. It is an organization truly dedicated to helping the communities and supporting and developing youth and families. I was blown away by the Youth in Government program and deeply grateful for the opportunity to see it in action once again.