The YMCA Youth & Government program boasts roughly 50,000 members nationwide. Teenagers meet locally through their high schools to practice the democratic process by creating mock bills and legislation and participating in a model congress. Members write individual policies of national or international importance; the policies are then discussed at a statewide conference. The top 25 delegates from each of 41 participating states advance to the Youth Conference on National Affairs, held annually in Black Mountain at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly.
This year’s conference took place July 1 to 6 and hosted over 600 delegates. The students proposed a wide range of policies on issues as diverse as nuclear power, gerrymandering prevention, the school-to-prison pipeline and equal opportunity grants for foster children — to name just a few.
Authors and their policies go through three rounds of committee meetings to ensure constitutionality and feasibility. Next, the policies advance to general assemblies where a chamber of delegates listens as authors present and defend their proposals. The debates end in a vote to determine whether the bill passes or dies.
In addition to the opportunity to test the waters of potential political careers, the conference gives civic-minded youth from around the country a chance to mingle with like-minded peers.
“This is an amazing conference. It brings people together from so many different backgrounds. Our lives have been so impacted by our experiences here,” said Presiding Officer John Ball. Like a number of other graduates of the program, Ball — who now attends Harvard as a freshman — was invited back this year to moderate and clerk debates. The other Presiding Officers echoed similar sentiments, claiming they have “made some of their best friends here.” Several said they are thankful for the chance to facilitate the same opportunities for personal and communal growth that they enjoyed for younger groups of students.
The few adults present at the conference said they left hopeful and inspired by the potential for future change exhibited by these young men and women. They applauded delegates on their refreshing approach to resolving conflict, especially when contrasted with modern American politics, which attendees heavily criticized for its stagnant discourse.
“You can pretty much tell what the political climate will be in 10 to 15 years based on the [attitudes expressed] here. I wish I would have taken more notes, because I could have been a great forecaster,” said former Conference Director Robert McGaughey. Conference leadership staff member Ben Blais said 2017 ’s attendees represented the event’s “most vocally diverse group” to date, a fitting distinction for the event’s 5oth anniversary.