YMCA CEO Glen Gunderson's Perspective on Preparing the Next Generation of Inclusive Leaders through Youth In Government Program

Earlier this month, I was at the kickoff dinner for the Y’s Youth in Government Model Assembly.

We just came through one of the most polarizing, vitriolic election cycles in U.S. history and didn’t know how that might impact our students.

Orville Lindquist has participated, volunteered and served as part of the program for over 30 years, and he was equally flummoxed.

“I was particularly nervous this year with politics and everything related to the election,” says Orville, the Y’s state program executive. “I was prepared for students not being very inclusive toward each other.”

But, to Orville’s delight, his concerns did not materialize.

“This is one of the nicest groups of young leaders I’ve ever worked with,” Orville says. “People were so open-hearted towards each other. There was a spirit that was a little lighter than usual, more open than usual and it was pervasive everywhere we were.”

Model Assembly is Minnesota’s largest hands-on civic education event, with nearly 1,400 students in grades 8-12 gathering at the State Capitol to replace the functions of state government.

They experience making and changing laws, trying court cases and creating an open government.

These youth leaders inspire me. While they may have strong opinions — and differing opinions — they realize the only way to be effective is to collaborate and communicate.

What a beautiful lesson in leadership.

They give me hope.

Adults are now forced to answer this question: How do we come together? How do we collaborate? Will we reach across the aisle again?

Older generations are struggling to put personal views or interests aside for the benefit of strengthening our society.

I am heartened that these students are experiencing and practicing how government works so they can get into leadership roles and work on behalf of ALL Americans. They’re learning how our government works and gaining insights into all related systems.

Students like Lauryn and Sabrina (watch their videos here Youth in Government: Sabrina’s Story and Youth in Government: Lauryn’s Story) get ideas of what they want to advocate and how they want to advocate in a government structure, whether at a state or federal level.

They give me hope because these students aren’t coming up in isolationism; it’s a global economy and the world has gotten smaller and flatter due to digital communications and how easily we can travel.

I’ve seen up close the influence of Model Assembly. A daughter of a close friend used to be very uncomfortable speaking with me, not looking me in the eyes. But over the last three years, she’s participated in Model Assembly.

Our most recent conversation was eye-opening. She was effusive, confident.

I remember telling my daughter that I was blown away by her poise and confidence, compared to the last time I interacted with her!

Our family friend’s daughter was transformed.

So while our country is at a critical juncture, she and many other inspiring young people give me hope for a bright future.