A California Program Teaches Kids About the Legislature and Public Service
By Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios
Getting involved in politics for many people means grabbing their phone or computer and sharing their anger and resentment toward politicians and a system they feel doesn’t listen to them. It might be satisfying to lash out at what’s happening in the world, but there is so much more that can be done.
That was California Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin’s thinking when she launched her Young Legislators Program two years ago. The program gives high school students the opportunity to learn about the legislative process and integrate themselves in their local communities through public service.
At its core the program lets students participate in the system that creates the laws affecting their communities. First, they learn how bills become laws—from discussing ideas for possible legislation to drafting, submitting and ultimately winning approval for their ideas.
After that, the young legislators get hands-on experience working in their communities by attending local events hosted by Irwin’s district office.
The 44th Assembly District is almost evenly divided between affluent areas and those with limited resources. Students from throughout the district complete an application process that includes an interview. Once accepted, the students spend six Saturdays taking part in panel discussions on civic engagement; learning to navigate a pathway to higher education; and investigating different career opportunities.
“Our Young Legislators Program takes high school students beyond the classroom,” Irwin said. “They learn not only about how local and state government decisions impact their communities, but more importantly, they learn how they can be part of the process and have a voice within the process.”
But let’s face it, you can’t talk about policymaking and changing the world without experiencing the white dome. So, in addition to the Saturdays in the district, students travel to the state Capitol in Sacramento. They get to observe a full day’s session at the Assembly, sit in on committee hearings and meet legislators from across the state. They hang out with capitol staff and participate in a mock committee hearing, role-playing positions for or against a current bill in the legislature.
The key here is participation—finding ways to get kids involved, ways that perhaps they never considered. Upon completing the free program, participants will have gained a better understanding of legislative politics and will be on their way to becoming tomorrow’s leaders.
“Joining the Young Legislators Program has improved my knowledge of local and state government,” said Amina Pasha Ghorob, a Thousand Oaks High School sophomore. “Watching what may be seen on television has made me question government and how people are individualized, but being a part of this program made me re-evaluate my point of view on government. It is a team effort for even the slightest change; it is a movement of passion, and it is the creation for a better tomorrow.”
It’s that very experience Irwin hoped the program could provide. As part of the first generation in her family to go to college, she wanted to give students in the 44th District a chance at the opportunities she’s enjoyed in her life. Her goal at first was to concentrate on students in the district who don’t typically have the means to participate in programs like this one. But the program was so popular that she opened it to sophomores and juniors from all the district’s high schools, regardless of their career interests.
The Young Legislators Program proves there are indeed many ways to make a difference.
Jeannette Sanchez-Palacios is district director for California Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin.