Hope for the Future: Youth in Government

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.


The Community of Community Theater

This past August, I found myself on a middle school stage, auditioning for my first play since 2008.  The play was “Harvey,” by Mary Chase, and I still couldn’t quite tell you what had made me decide to audition.  I had found out about the Prior Lake Players community theater organization through work.  The Players had donated proceeds to our food shelf the previous season.  I was familiar with the play – well, not just familiar, I adored both the film and stage versions.  It’s tough to beat a Jimmy Stewart movie, and the character of Elwood Dowd was one of my favorites.


Anyway, I auditioned.  I wasn’t nervous.  I didn’t have any particular stakes.  If I got in, great!  If not, it’s not like I had lost anything. I hoped I would get in of course, but wasn’t pinning any big dreams on it.

Me as a pie server in Beauty and the Beast

Then I left the country on vacation for a couple of weeks.  I got the email saying that I was being offered the part of Nurse Kelly while I was in Norway.  And just like that, it was the biggest deal in the world to me!  I accepted the part right away.  I was so nervous and excited.  I hadn’t been in a play in almost a decade, and the last part I had played was a pie server in Beauty and the Beast.  I mean the actual utensil, not someone who served pies.  That had been in community theater back in college.  I had never had this large of a part or this many lines!  I had an actual character!  With a personality!

Right after Labor Day, rehearsals started.  We all stumbled through our lines, literally stumbled through blocking the movements on stage, and introduced ourselves to our fellow cast members.

The community created around a show is an odd thing.  You are thrown together with this group of people, with no say in who your fellow cast members will be.  Sometimes cast members know each other, but I had never met any of them before.  And it starts of very professionally.  You show up, you run the scene, you work out the bugs.  Slowly, you might start to have side conversations when you’re not on.  You find out what people do for a living, what their theater experience has been, which musicals they love and hate.  It’s a group of theater lovers.  Musicals come up a lot.

Then, you start rehearsing with the set, and with props, and pieces of costumes.  It starts to take shape.  And you are truly in this world belonging exclusively to the cast and crew.  You sit around together in between scenes or when the directors are arguing over a bit of blocking.  You might have things in common with your cast mates, you might not.  But you find out you like each other.  In this weird little world all your own, you become family.  You joke and laugh hysterically at things no one else would find funny.  You become a family.

I have never experienced anything else like the community one finds in theater.  These people, who a couple months ago I didn’t know at all and who I hadn’t specifically chosen to spend time with, are now dear friends.  They are hilarious and odd and wildly goofy.  I have no idea if I will keep up contact with them once this show is over.  People tend to go their own way.  I’m sure we’ll check in on Facebook now and then.  I hope for more concrete friendships though, with at least a few.  My female costars especially.  Girl friends are frightfully important, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I will never have too many.

Community theater is a funny thing.  We spend hours upon hours of our lives for weeks rehearsing for a show.  We do not get paid.  We do not perform before enormous audiences.  We do not get famous.  We are all there simply because we love it.  A shared love for theater.  Yeah.  That’s more than enough to build a community on.