YMCA’s Youth in Government Helps Kids Find Their Civic Voices

Gen Z is speaking up about what matters to them. Through an immersive Y program called Youth in Government, they have their voices heard.

For teens who want to understand the American democratic process, YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit has a long-standing program called Youth in Government (YIG) that gives them the opportunity to develop an appreciation for how government works in Michigan and in the nation. This year, YIG, which has been active in Ys throughout Michigan for more than 70 years, is expanding to all YMCA branches in metro Detroit.

“YIG exposes teens in Michigan to the fundamentals of government and the judicial and democratic process and how it all works,” says Charles Hansen, executive director for Metro Youth programs at YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit.

Based on the concept that each generation must learn about democracy in order to fully take part in civic engagement, YIG is a national YMCA program that is sometimes known outside of Michigan as Youth and Government. In Michigan, seventh to 12th grade students from various regions participate in programming and, during non-pandemic years, visit the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.

Within YIG, students are empowered to lead and run programming, says Lydia Mitchell, executive director for YMCA Michigan Youth in Government (MYIG).

“We give teens a space to practice democracy in an environment built on the YMCA core values of Caring, Honesty, Respect and Responsibility,” Mitchell explains. “In today’s political climate debate and discourse can be polarizing, but at YMCA MYIG we focus on ideas and experiences. By giving teens the tools to raise their voice, to be heard, and to listen to others’ voices they learn to consider new perspectives and think critically about the problems that face our world today.”

Learning about justice and the judicial process

“Since the later part of 2020, kids in YIG have focused on how things are going in the country. They’re young people who are looking to find their voice, and this is one way they can do that,” Hansen says.

Locally, participants take part in a model judiciary program (MJP), which Hansen says is the Y’s version of a mock trial.

“In our cohort, we practice as prosecution and defense and the kids have to be prepared to do either,” he explains. Judges, lawyers and volunteers all come together to make it happen. “It provides an awesome experience for kids,” he says, adding he is grateful to Mitchell and her team because they worked so hard to help make programming happen virtually this year.

The year’s MJP focused on the September 2018 case involving former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who was found guilty of murder for the off-duty shooting of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old Black man, in his own apartment, which she mistook for her own.

“The kids found evidence and created opening and closing statements and we were very fortunate to have a judge from Detroit conduct the mock trial before we went to state. Parents and community members were involved, too,” Hansen explains.

Understanding the legislative process

Another aspect of YIG gives kids the chance to get hands-on experience in the legislative process. Here, students can choose to create bills that address issues they think are important.

“We start with a forum to discuss a political or social justice issue,” Hansen says. “The way things bubbled over in the country at the end of the last year, students had a lot to get off their chests.”

Students learn in detail about how bills progress through the legislative process. They review, debate and vote to pass a law.

“Even having gone through this with the kids, I see the process again and am reminded of how the legislative process is lengthy and time consuming,” Hansen says. “All of these new voting laws that are being passed are going fast compared to what we have learned and it’s a big reminder of how things are supposed to go on paper versus how they sometimes do go in reality.”

One student even advanced to the state level with legislation that addresses mental health in high schools, Hansen says.

“We can pretend that kids don’t know what is happening, but they do know what is going on,” he says. “This gives them an outlet where they can voice their opinions and their displeasures, and we can show them how to effectively make change.”

Diversity within Michigan helps participants gain deeper perspective, Mitchell says.

“The teens see firsthand how different ideas, perspectives and experiences impact each person’s individual world view. What better way to understand a new perspective than to make a friend from somewhere else and learn from them?” she says. “No matter where a student is from, gaining perspective from someone whose life is different than yours is the best way to understand why we have different political philosophies or different ideas about solutions to a current political issue.”

Achievers program

YIG is just one part of a larger career and college prep program run by YMCA here in metro Detroit. The Achievers program helps high school students prepare for college and career through exposure to various career fields and college readiness activities.

“We’re focused on post-secondary education. We also recognize that college is not for everyone, even though society tends to paint the picture that college is the only way to success,” Hansen says. “We meet twice a week and two Saturdays a month to learn life skills and take college tours and work tours.”

Through a partnership with Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, kids and young adults can gain work experience during the summer and hone basic work skills. There are also programs for K-8 students to learn STEM skills.

Achievers offers test prep for the ACT and SAT as well as a “Seniors Only” program for college application and essay writing support.

“Through Y Achievers, kids get the chance to figure out what they want to do,” Hansen says. “They explore careers and try out internships and real jobs. This really helps prepare them for the real world.”

Interested in YIG? Y Members’ kids, 7th-12th grade, can attend virtual teasers from 4:30-6 p.m. on Aug. 11, 18 and 25. Email Carmen Brown at carmen.brown@ymcadetroit.org to learn more.

YIG starts on Sept. 22, 2021 and is open to all with registration fee.

Learn more about YMCA Achievers and Youth in Government at ymcadetroit.org.

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