Youth in Government conference set for Capitol

Friday, April 8, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 15
By Megan Faison

Tennessee YMCA Youth Governors Simon Cooper and Drake Lyle shooting hoops on a private basketball court located above the United States Supreme Court – the highest court in the land – on a recent trip to Washington D.C.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Tennessee Ymca Center For Civic Engagement

More than 1,500 high school students will gather at the Tennessee State Capitol April 7-10 and 14-17 as part of the 63rd annual Tennessee YMCA Youth in Government (YIG) conferences.

While today’s students primarily are taught about government through books or the Internet, the conferences provide the necessary realization that true civic engagement is possible only when citizens effectively submerge themselves in the process.

Students participate in a simulation of the state’s democratic process by serving as governors, senators, representatives, justices, lawyers, lobbyists, and press members. The governor and his cabinet hear legislation that has been passed and compile a budget based on actual state monies, while the legislators present, debate and vote on bills.

The lawyers argue Tennessee Supreme Court cases in front of the justices, who make their rulings based on the facts, and the lobbyists try and persuade everyone within their reach. All of conference’s activities are documented in both print and broadcast media by a press corps that works tirelessly throughout the long weekend. Delegates, representing 13 counties throughout the state, choose which components they want to be a part of prior to the event.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper is a longtime program supporter.

“Young adults are our future legislators, governors and presidents. But in the last Nashville election, only 2 percent of the voters were between the ages of 18 and 24,” Cooper says. “I’m proud of [the YMCA Center for Civic Engagement] for promoting civics in our schools and encouraging high school students to get involved early.”

The 2016 Youth Governors are Simon Cooper, Hume Fogg Academic Magnet School senior and Drake Lyle, Ravenwood High School senior.

Cooper (no relation to Rep. Cooper) views YIG as the, “ultimate intellectual and civic experience.”

“It’s impossible not to emerge from a conference with a new depth of understanding of our society and heightened respect for those with whom you disagree,” Cooper adds. “As the conference approaches, it seems ever more significant that I do my best … for the people and the conference that are so essential to democratic growth.”

Cooper and Lyle met with their real-life counterpart Governor Bill Haslam, as well as U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and U.S. Reps. Diane Black, Marsha Blackburn and Steve Cohen. Tennessee YMCA Center for Civic Engagement Executive Director Susan Moriarty and Associate Director Elise Dugger traveled with the young men to Washington D.C. for the YMCA Advocacy Days.

In addition to meeting with our country’s leaders, they visited memorials, museums and historic landmarks. They were also able to shoot hoops on a private basketball court located above the highest court in the land.

“The experience was truly surreal,” Cooper explains “Seeing the seal of the Supreme Court imprinted on the floor … is such an enthralling and odd experience. It carries more emotional weight than one might imagine. ... It really does feel too cool to be true.”

The YMCA Center for Civic Engagement, the second largest program of its kind in the country – is a statewide leadership development program designed to allow students to experience mock governments at the state, national and international levels. The CCE hosts 15 Model United Nations and Youth in Government conferences annually, serving more than 5,000 young people.

The CCE also offers financial assistance to students who might not otherwise be able to attend. Four hundred and twenty-nine students received more than $80,000 in financial assistance in 2015 alone.

While the CCE programs are funded primarily by student participation fees, assistance is made possible through the support of donors, many of whom are program alumni.

Notable alumni include former youth governor and U.S. Rep. Bob Clement, Tennessee State Sen. Ed Jackson, Memphis City Council Member Worth Morgan, past Metro Nashville Council Member Sean McQuire and Jake Phillips, a former law clerk to United State Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who stood vigil over his casket when President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama paid their respects.

“I’m always impressed with the level of involvement of our students and alumni,’’ Moriarty says. “Our students have roles in their schools and communities, and a number of our alumni are directly involved in the political arena. But more importantly our alumni define civic engagement not as something they do but as who they are as individuals.”

While 38 states and Washington D.C. offer YIG programs, Tennessee is one of the few that uses a working capitol building. For more information on the YMCA Center for Civic Engagement visit