“Let’s make this conference great again,” the youth governor spoke from his podium into the mic, with a good-natured grin to the conference attendees.
At first I thought the seemingly humorous and light-hearted, knowing references to the current U.S. president’s slogan that were made during opening ceremonies were just that: joking, tongue-in-cheek remarks. I wasn’t, however, as prepared as I thought for the real life aftermath of events that would follow.
Youth and Government, which will lovingly be referred to as YAG from here on out,is a nationwide program hosted by the YMCA. It welcomes thousands of participants at the middle and high school levels annually. In Texas, the program turned 70 this year with over 1150 high schools coming together for the annual State conference weekend in Austin.
The Renaissance Austin Hotel in The Arboretum housed more than 1400 participants who possessed a variety of political and social ideas. I’ve always wanted to join the YAG program , but prior engagements prevented me from doing so.However, this year ,ime seemed to be on my side.
A weekend, well, three days and three nights with over a thousand strangers, all around my age, who are interested and/or involved in politics in one way or another, is not something I can say I’ve had the availability to experience before. Sure, I’d heard my fair share of stories from past event-goers and bystanders. I knew that ARS had a history of winning YAG awards, but I really had no clue what I should expect (or not expect) at the 2017 edition of this ever-coveted annual event.
This was my first rodeo.
The beginning seemed as I imagined (from prior multi-school event experience) any other event of this nature would play out: schools arrived on overfilling busses, slowly piling into the hotle and then all at once, the lobby floor itself was overflowing. Students stood around in congregations of larger-than-life suitcases, carry-ons, and laughing fits.
In pre-ceremony district meetings, I learned that,contrary to my belief, there really weren’t many seniors at the conference. Was this a good thing? A bad omen? It honestly didn’t mean much to me, but it did make for interesting ponderings; Is that stranger a senior? She can’t be, she looks to be a Junior-Fresh-More. Him? He’s a freaking man, he has to be a senior…if he’s not then, I’m done.
The conference opening, however, hinted that students from Liberal Austin were in for a weekend of whole-hearted debates with differing, political voices from the mind of young America.
Flash-forward to the next evening: Social Night.
With my choices ranging from study hall to open-mic, I opted for the latter, wanting a brain break with others rather than a quiet night in the hotel room. Eyeing the others that followed suit, I expected I was in for a night – or at least an hour or two’s worth – of laughs, smiles, and a few cringes.
Half an hour later, and I was right, but I’d also been surprised: one sophomore girl, Niara Pelton, courageously spoke her mind on a political and social aspect of the country she felt strongly about; being black in America. There were no outbreaks or rude remarks after, but a good amount of snaps while she spoke – the room felt inviting, supportive, and hopeful – and I wasn’t even the one on stage.
Following a very dramatic and whole-hearted reading of the Bee Movie screenplay – camera framing included – my group of friends and I decided we’d head out and explore the hotel lobby and photobooth. Just a short time after, the lobby was crowded and that night I heard the story of what I’d missed shortly after leaving open-mic.
Youth and Government is a good a place as any to be political and share your views – goodness knows the teenaged and nearly-adult participants aren’t afraid to do so. I knew I’d encounter someone who viewed the world in a different light than I did, but I had no inclination as to how far one would go to voice those opinions.
The story goes something like this: A student participant signed up for open-mic, knowing full well that his performance would be one many would remember.
The young YAG member spoke on his support for Donald J. Trump’s wall and as he was speaking, nearly all of his audience walked out, leaving behind a plethora of empty seats. The leaving part didn’t strike me as odd, and the Trump mention didn’t faze me : after all,I more than expected that. Instead, it was the passion in which this young man spoke (from what I’ve heard of witness accounts) that more than astounded me.
I know Austin is a blue spec in a red state, and many hold the same views as Donald Trump, but this made it all the more real. Kids my own age and younger are as close minded as the current office holders.
In all honesty, if anyone had censored the speaker, the very ideals of YAG would’ve been diminished. Youth and Government is a program that welcomes and encourages young America to tackle the very things that plague our nation and our world. Limiting any participating individual would not only contradict their mission, but further threaten the future; if one can’t share their opinions at a conference geared toward changing the world and raising tomorrow’s leaders, then when can they? If not now, ever?
There’s one quote in particular that has stuck with me since the conference banquet on our last evening together.
“I keep thinking it will get better, but then I remember they’re raising their sons.”
I was sitting with some other ARS girls and a new YAG friend and her mentor when this was said, and though I don’t remember exactly who said it, I can’t forget the words. As we ate and discussed our conference experiences, my eyes were further opened to those I’d seen in passing all weekend.
ARS state affairs competitors told us of the outlandish bills other YAG-goers were devoted to seeing passed, including one that proposed driver’s’ licenses with immigrant indicators, which sounded to many, eerily similar to how Nazi’s identified Jews. I’d spent a weekend’s worth of hours with 1400+ individuals all around my age, only to truly realize that to some of them, people like the ones I love matter less simply because of where they were born.
Leaving on Sunday was a bittersweet experience. I’d had my own personal encounter with political divisions (I’d hung around hundreds of teens with political ideals that differed from mine) and I now understand that, as much as I wish it didn’t, politics plays a role in relationships throughout your life. At the same time, I’d met some funny people, mock trial-ed with other interesting ones, and seen people I may or may never see again.
For three days and three nights, this Austinite was submerged in a clash of cultures that I will forever know as my first (and last) YAG rodeo. Regardless of the craziness, I hope to stay involved. Who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised again in the future – for the better or for worse.