Last Saturday, I spent my day surrounded by 1500 middle and high school superheroes suited up in business attire for the YMCA Texas Youth and Government (YG) District 5 Conference. Their superpower, however, does not come from the outside appearance. Rather, it emanates from the inside, from well-honed critical thinking skills. And it’s an awesome force to behold!
Students from schools in the North Texas area who participate in the District Conference take part in one of the following tracks: Senior Legislative, Junior Legislative, Judicial, State Affairs for High School and Middle School, and Media. Not only do they conduct mock trials, and propose, debate, and pass legislation; they also campaign and vote for state offices. Alex Searles, McKinney’s candidate for District Governor, was elected to office. He and his team will now campaign for State office at the State Conference in Austin in January.
This was my first YMCA YG District experience. All the McKinney schools take a collaborative approach by working together as a community with one voice, rather than pitting schools against each other. I love being part of the McKinney family of volunteer advisors. Most are parents with kids in the programs, but others [like me] participate because we love kids AND the governmental processes.
I was privileged to serve as a Senior Legislative Committee evaluator during the day. As the students present their bills, ask questions, offer pro and con arguments, and amendments, we evaluate their debate skills. We look at grammar and organization, quality of oral delivery, quality of questions, and relevance to the debate. Many of the kids are new to public speaking, and this experience offers them a safe place to practice their skills. As evaluators, we not only score their effort, but also offer suggestions on how to improve.
The bills they brought forward in committee offer an interesting window into their cultural perspectives on current issues — some of which surprised me. The maturity of thinking, demonstrated by the strength of arguments they posed to bill authors, and creative approaches to solutions, was simply astounding. For instance, one student offered an intriguing bill to require bars to create a menu of “panic button” drinks that allow patrons to let bartenders know they need help. For example, a bar can create the “cotton candy/peppermint drink with ice” — with the “coded menus” posted in the bathrooms. A different code would be posted in the male and female bathrooms, with the instruction that ordering this drink means ‘I need someone to escort me to my car’ or ‘call the police.’ The bars will change out the panic button drink menus each month. The kids asked great questions: such as, what if the bartender blows you off when you order the panic button drink? What if the bartender is the aggressor? What about male-on-male assault — the panic button poster in the men’s room would be meaningless? How would the state enforce the panic button bill? What if someone orders the panic button drink without knowing what it means?The bill’s author fielded all the questions well, and the bill passed out of committee.
Other bills included the elimination of race designations from college applications, a law requiring abuse shelters for men in each county, annual high school vision screening requirements, racial profiling educational training to be conducted by police at local high schools. One student offered a bill to prevent the release of the names of officers involved in a shooting, to protect them from harm by angry community members. The debate revolved around transparency, freedom of speech in social media, punishment for ‘leakers’, and personal/family safety concerns. These kids aren’t afraid to take socially volatile positions, for the sake of debate.
What’s next? The State Conference in Austin. Students from across the state will take over the State House and Senate chambers to practice the governance process. I’m thrilled to watch them grow into their roles as leaders of tomorrow. From what I can see, we’re in GREAT hands!