By Robb Murray
---- — MANKATO — Before getting involved in the Youth in Government program, Elissa Schmiel didn't exactly have the best impression of lobbyists.
"I knew they weren’t exactly the most popular people in Washington," said Schmiel, who is a repeat customer when it comes to Youth in Government. "But I thought, why not step into their shoes, see if you can make it a better position, make it not so hated and associated with malice."
Schmiel, a junior at Mankato West High School, will be among the 50 or so students from the Mankato area heading up to St. Paul in a few months to take part in the Youth in Government weekend, a crash course on how the state's government operates on everything from crafting legislation, the Supreme Court or, in Schmiel's case, how lobbying works.
The point is to teach young people how the process works and, more importantly, how to be a part of it in a meaningful way.
Aaron Miller, a social studies teacher at West High School, said he's been involved with the program for seven years. In that time the program's enrollment has grown steadily. When he took over, they were were seeing roughly 15 students sign up. Last year, they had 59 and they're hoping for a similar number this year.
Prior to the big Youth in Government weekend, the students who pay to be involved get together regularly to prepare. They choose a position — legislator, litigator of a Supreme Court case, lobbyist, etc. — and prepare. In Schmiel's case, she'll be assigned a cause and become a lobbyist for that cause. Last year she was a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women and needed to prepare position statements on several issues. Then, at the weekend of the Youth in Government conference, she needed to defend those positions.
That, she says, is where some of the magic happened.
"Everyone there is passionate and educated about the issues," she said. "It’s so great to have an educational, intellectual conversation with someone, even if they don't agree with you. That makes you more informed, and it's very interesting to hear from people with different opinions and from different backgrounds."
Miller said it's great when a student starts young. As an eighth-grader, he said, they can get involved in legislation. In ninth grade, maybe they can try the Supreme Court. And so on. By the time they're upper classmen, whatever their first choice is (students can request a certain "profession" but aren't guaranteed to get it), is usually where they end up.
By the time the weekend arrives and the preparation is done — learning how you talk in a committee and how do you ask questions, what the parliamentary rules are, how to give testimony, how to present a case — Miller says the thing sort of runs itself.
"It's organized chaos," Miller said. "Adult advisers are just supervising. We're there in case situations come up."
Youth in Government actually originates with the YMCA and has been around for decades. Cheryl Hamond of the Mankato YMCA says the program fits with the Y's mission on many different levels.
"We're teaching young people how to be leaders," Hamond said, "teaching them about the government process."
One thing the YMCA does not do, Hamond said, is push any kind of political agenda. The Y and the advisers are simply there to direct the kids.
"The conclusions they reach are all up to them," Hamond said.
Another aspect that makes the program in Minnesota unique is the fact that the kids actually get to use the state's Capitol building.
"Not all states allow that — the actual chambers, the House and Senate floor — it's a big privilege," she said.
Youth in Government, however, isn't cheap. At $475, it's a bit spendier than the registration for other activities.
But Hamond says the YMCA is very willing to work with students and families to make sure that, if a child wants to do Youth in Government, price won't be a prohibiting factor.
"We take between a $10,000 and $15,000 loss because of the scholarships we give," Hamond said, "but we believe in the program, and we believe in investing in the youth of tomorrow. It's important for kids to have the opportunity."
Not all kids, though, want it.
Schmiel said that even though the program doesn't have the most exciting-sounding name — and many of her friends aren't really into it — she has been recommending it people because the experience is so valuable.
"I think most of my peers do not share a passion for government. They’re not really influenced directly, or at least they don't recognize that they’re influenced," Schmiel said. "But it’s so worth it, it’s so much fun and you get to meet people from all over the state who are just as interested in learning as you are."