The chair of the State Affairs Committee wielded the gavel with precision. 

Bang. Debate on a proposal started. Bang. Permission to speak granted. Bang. Voting ended.

This sounds like a scene from the Texas Capitol in Austin — it was anything but. Instead, about 360 students from Fort Worth-area schools convened their own state government, complete with courts and media, inside Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD’s Chisholm Trail High School as part of the YMCA’s Youth and Government program. Putting their civic knowledge to the test, they met to see whether they could run a functioning democracy.

And they tried to do it better than what they see at the state capitol or in Congress — they emphasized treating each other with respect.

State Affairs Committee chair Neva Khan, right, waits to bang her gavel as a delegate finishes talking inside a lecture hall in Chisholm Trail High School in Fort Worth on Nov. 12, 2022. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

The Metropolitan Fort Worth YMCA organizes the local branch of the Youth and Government program, which sees students from Tarrant and Hood counties. Students pick one of the three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — and learn the rules and procedures of those roles. Some students even take on the role of the media and report on the decisions of their youth government.

Sue Six, a legislative coordinator, has helped the YMCA program for 30 years. She has seen hundreds of students debate and vote on bills. Getting to know how the government works is important, but Six sees students gaining much more than that. The program is a laboratory for students to learn how to be leaders in school and their future careers.

“You’re learning to talk and think on your feet. You’re learning to be responsible and meet deadlines. You’re learning to exchange ideas with people you don’t necessarily agree with, hopefully, in a professional way,” Six said. “It’s life skills.”

‘Future leaders’

Isabella Logan, a student at Uplift Summit High School, was emphatic to the State Affairs Committee: They must pass a bill to stop levying a sales tax on period products.

Logan’s fellow delegates threw some questions at her. One asked how the state would make up for the loss of revenue. Another wondered if this was the right approach and whether they could tackle the minimum wage instead.

Logan stood behind the lectern listening. She acknowledged their points and addressed them. She saw removing the tax as a way to level the playing field for all residents.

“Delegates, I urge you to consider the lives of young girls and menstruators who face period poverty and vote in favor of this proposal,” Logan said, standing behind a wooden lectern facing rows and rows of State Affairs Committee members.

Youth and Government participants take notes as they listen to a delegate propose a bill inside a lecture hall in Chisholm Trail High School in Fort Worth on Nov. 12, 2022. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

Logan’s proposal passed in a unanimous voice vote. Her proposal was one of 28 the State Affairs Committee heard, considered and debated.

That back and forth is what Six wants to see from students. They present their proposals, use their research to defend it from potential opponents and push for passage. 

Above all, these debates stay focused on ideas and do not descend into vitriol that is often seen with adults in the U.S. Congress and other legislative bodies across the nation.

“We hope that in training them to be future leaders, they will learn to do better than what they might have seen,” Six said. “We hope that they can be peacemakers and bridgebuilders — not just in government, but in everything that they do.”

‘What we need right now’

Maryfer Garcia, left, and Syrah Omar look through a packet to determine who they should talk to during the YMCA’s Youth and Government conference at Chisholm Trail High School in Fort Worth on Nov. 12, 2022. Garcia and Omar, who both attend the school, were reporters covering the event. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

Maryfer Garcia and Syrah Omar huddled near the doors of the lecture hall where the State Affairs Committee convened. 

They flipped through a packet detailing each of the 27 proposals committee members would consider that day. They watched and waited for the delegates to leave the room to grab them and chat.

Garcia and Omar, who both attend Chisholm Trail High School, were two of the students reporting on the conference. 

Garcia described the Youth and Government program as a gateway for young people like her to become active citizens and, eventually, grow into leading their communities and making better decisions.

“That’s what we need right now. We need very informed members in society,” Garcia, a senior, said.

Omar, a junior, agreed. The program is a way to expose young people to a unique experience to which not all students have access.

Students who participated in the Youth and Government program tend to be more active and involved citizens in their post-high school life, according to a 2018 survey between the YMCA and the University of Texas at Austin’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. 

More than eight in 10 students who participated in Youth and Government regularly vote. In 2016, a third of Texans between 18 and 24 voted. In the Nov. 8 election, an estimated 15% of voters who cast a ballot in the Texas gubernatorial race were between 18 and 29, according to an analysis from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.

Former Youth and Government participants also are more likely to volunteer and participate in their communities than young Texans.

Those higher rates of participation are exactly why Six, the legislative coordinator, has spent three decades helping students learn the motions of how to debate and find ways to get their ideas approved.

“We have a lot of kids who come out of this program with a desire to go into public service,” Six said. “Whatever profession they enter in, they look back to Youth and Government as such an important part of their high school or middle school years and what they learned from it.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.