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Feature: Passing the torch of democracy

Published (1/16/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Nima Hassan, a junior at Fridley High School, proposes a bill during a youth in government assembly.Jeff Boigenzahn II has served as a Senate committee chair, House chaplain and now a lobbyist.

Clad in a dark suit and necktie, sporting Capitol credentials around his neck, he waited outside a State Office Building hearing room Jan. 9 to testify before the Forest, Wetland and Wildlife Committee.

Inside the room, Sen. Fadumo Mohamud, in a pink hijab and wearing large hoop earrings, read her bill, HF6210, which would reduce light pollution by limiting rooftop lighting in urban areas. After testimony from lobbyists and questions from members, the committee chair called the vote. Mohamud’s bill was approved.

Those names don’t ring a bell? That’s because Boigenzahn, a senior at Red Wing High School, and Mohamud, a student at Lincoln International High School in Minneapolis, are two of the students who took part in the YMCA’s annual Youth in Government Model Assembly. As the House recessed Jan. 8-11 expressly for the purpose, 1,400 students representing high schools and YMCA branches around the state gathered at the Capitol Complex to try on the roles of the real Legislature.

The first model legislature was organized by a New York state YMCA in 1936. Minnesota’s program began a decade later. Its motto: “Democracy must be learned by each generation.”

The career of “proud alum” Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park) could be an indication Youth in Government is indeed helping to pass the torch of democracy. Simon’s nameplate is now affixed to Desk 103 in the House Chamber, but he easily recalls the thrill of sitting at a similar desk for the first time as a teenager.

“That opportunity to be here and immerse yourself for a few days in the physical trappings of state government was exciting,” Simon said. The program’s high standards, including the chance to meet legislators, a formal dress code and the etiquette of parliamentary procedure helped him and his peers “get into character” and “made the possibility real to me of someday being in public office.”

The assembly is nonpartisan, though participants say their peers from all parts of the state bring a diversity of opinion. Students follow official legislative process to the letter and take pride in running their own show. Some veterans in their fourth or fifth year find it difficult to shake off the legislative lingo after they return to real life.

“You get up in class and say, ‘I yield my time,’” said Kayden Wittman of Willmar, acting the role of the governor’s press secretary.

Gov. Logan Dick, a Hopkins High School senior with the Ridgedale YMCA delegation, said Model Assembly bills often reflect issues in the news. She and Lt Gov. Jacob Peters campaigned last year on a platform that sounds a bit like a physics formula, E² + T², which stands for “Energy, Education, Technology, Transportation.” Last year, she said students introduced a number of bills about bridges and safety regulations. This year’s slate included energy and economic bailout concerns.

Many students are clearly riding a wave of optimism created by the campaign of President-elect Barack Obama. Boigenzahn and his colleagues, Henry Sibley High School juniors Matt Zekowski and Adiv Paradise, chatted about their political inspirations.

“Barack Obama to me is the American dream,” Boigenzahn said. “Often we ask ourselves what is the American dream: To rise from nothing to everything.”

“To serve the people,” interjected Paradise.

“He wasn’t even elected yet and he was already bringing people together,” Boigenzahn continued.

Students mostly downplayed any political ambitions, though many intend to study political science, public policy, history or international relations in college. The program isn’t necessarily about forming future politicians, Zekowski said, but active citizens.

“I think it makes people want to step up and do something,” he said. “Even if you’re not interested in pursuing a political career, it makes people better voters and better constituents to their legislators.”

Adults involved with Youth in Government say the teenagers’ enthusiasm offers a sure cure for jaded attitudes.

Rhonda Fox, an advisor to the Henry Sibley High School group and parent of a participant, said she’s impressed with how deeply engaged students become in the program. “This is becoming their home. They will know how to effect change. They won’t be afraid to try.”

“It breaks down cynicism,” said Program Manager Chris Rasinen.

After 17 years with the program, first as a participant, then a volunteer and now a staff member, he looks forward to a new session every January. “It’s cold and you smell the bus fumes. It’s time to go to the Capitol. It’s that time of year.”

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