Teenage statesmen

Illinois YMCA Youth and Government program comes to the Statehouse

Last weekend, high school teens filled the roles of legislative assistants, lobbyists, senators and representatives of the Democrat and Republican caucuses in the Illinois General Assembly, bringing their own set of bills to be heard in the Illinois Statehouse.

The Illinois YMCA Youth and Government program hosted its 67th annual simulation at the Statehouse on March 19 and 20, allowing 1,000 high school students to demonstrate their knowledge of the legislative and judicial processes. The teen caucuses represented schools stretching across the northern and southern counties in the state – from Waubonsie Valley High School in DuPage County down to Frankfort Community High School in Franklin County in southern Illinois.

Everything – from the governor’s cabinet to the Illinois Supreme Court justices and the elected officials who sat of the floor of the General Assembly – was selected by the students who made up the governing body. Amanda Tucker, vice-chairwoman of the Illinois YMCA board of directors and a volunteer from Champaign, describes the simulation as a leadership program for high school students.

“It is truly a unique experience that teaches democracy in action,” Tucker said.  “It’s immersive and it’s a hands-on experience that you just can’t attain anywhere else.”

The teens also had the option to be a part of student-led print and broadcast media outlets.

The Observer, the daily newspaper produced by students during the simulation, highlighted a bill introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Nicole Kamiski, D-Carl Sandburg, in favor of requiring physical education classes to have a two-week self-defense unit in response to the number of assaults that occur on college campuses. Kamiski’s interest in this bill stemmed from a news report of an assault that occurred on the University of Illinois campus that her sister attended.

Kamiski was quoted saying, “The bill is a great way to deter the need for pepper spray and will empower students to feel safe wherever they are.”

The teen legislators rotated in groups of three, filing into their seats to debate with each other about the bills they wanted signed into law by the governor.

In the simulation, legislative assistants are granted a voice and are equally as immersed as the legislators in the process, depending on the bills up for debate.

Natalie Dunnett, a House legislative assistant representing Naperville North High School, thought the physical education self-defense bill was a good idea, but that it needed to be amended. Dunnett proposed an amendment to make the class optional instead of mandatory.

Typically, legislative assistants are freshmen who are interested in getting involved in the program. For most of them, this would be their first kind of exposure to politics.

Allison Mool, a legislative assistant from Williamsville High School in Sangamon County, explained that one of the main duties for legislative assistants is to manage the bill flow.

“A bill may need to go from the House, to the Senate and then to the governor or vice versa,” Mool said. “We have to make sure that the bill gets to the right chamber and make sure they are in the right order based on the docket number, keeping everything running smoothly.”

Kajal Patel and Mattie Mulvaney, committee chairs from Mt. Vernon Township High School, have learned a lot about how the bill process works over the four years that they have been involved in the youth and government program.

“We love this program,” Patel and Mulvaney said simultaneously.

“This is our last year and I hope everyone who wants to learn about how government works decides to participate,” Patel said.

While the teens were engaged in the democratic process, Amanda Tucker, vice-chair on the board of directors, and Matt Donkin, attendance coordinator on the board from West Frankfort, Illinois, were headquartered in the governor’s office, along with other volunteers and school advisers, working as a support staff for the students.

“We hope that the delegates walk away understanding government and that they can take a leadership role in whatever form that may be,” Tucker said. “This will be an experience that they will remember, that encourages them to become engaged in their communities and the civil process, and to be thoughtful and mindful citizens.”

Contact Brittany Hilderbrand at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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