Tucked away in an office on Claremont Street in downtown San Mateo is the headquarters of Junior State, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization training America's future political leaders since 1934.
Junior State chapters at local high schools, about 500 nationwide, are student run. The chapters encourage civic engagement and political awareness on campus by sponsoring debates on current controversial issues and participating in voter registration drives and candidate forums. Recently, a group of Junior State students gathered to watch "Waiting for Superman" and discussed education reform proposals. Most of the student chapters also held debate watch parties during the recent presidential election. It's up to the students to organize a chapter at their high school. Currently, there are local chapters at San Mateo High School, Hillsdale High School, Mercy High School and Crystal Springs Uplands School.
The Junior State Foundation (made up of adults) runs summer schools at Stanford, Princeton and Georgetown universities. Three years ago, it started a summer school in China called JSA Diplomat Program. Students at the U.S. summer schools study American government, international relations, economics, constitutional law, speech and political communications. It's a rigorous program with students expected to write a college-level term paper and take an essay exam. In Beijing, American Junior State students study Chinese history and government along with conversational Chinese. This year, there will be a new summer program at the University of Virginia where students will take advanced placement U.S. history and visit historic sites.
Students attending the Stanford summer school get a dose of conservative and liberal politics when they meet with representatives from the Hoover Institute on campus and San Francisco government leaders. In D.C., students meet with Republican and Democratic U.S. senators, members of Congress and the Cabinet. The Princeton program includes trips to New York City.
The summer schools are expensive. Most students receive partial scholarships and raise the rest themselves. The Junior State website has some helpful hints on how to fundraise. For the aspiring politicians in the group, they are learning the first tools of the trade.
The organization has important connections in D.C. U.S. representatives Zoe Lofgren, Mark Takano and Derek Kilmer are Junior State grads. So are former U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese, former secretary of defense Leon Panetta; former U.S. secretary of transportation Norman Mineta and former White House press secretary Mike McCurry. Other Junior State alums who now hold elective office are Joe Simitian, Santa Clara County supervisor and former state senator and assemblyman; Ted Lempert, San Mateo County Board of Education president and former state assemblyman and San Mateo County supervisor; San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford; Liz Lempert, Princeton, N.J. mayor; Beth Freeman, San Mateo County Superior Court judge; and West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon. The late Gary Fazzino, former Palo Alto councilman, and Jerry Newfarmer, former San Jose city manager, were Junior State grads. Tom Brady, New England Patriots quarterback and San Mateo native, also participated in high school.
The real action at Junior State takes place at student-run conventions held in the fall and spring. About 1,000 students from Northern California are expected to gather at the Santa Clara Marriott at the end of April to participate in debates and elect officers. They also take time off to have fun with a nightly dance following the official agenda. Similar conventions will be held in Southern California and in the 33 states where Junior State has 10,000 participating students. Leadership skills are developed by those who seek and win elective office. The students take these jobs very seriously.
Akshaya Natarajan, president of the San Mateo High School chapter, is running for the statewide office of lieutenant governor in April. Students in her chapter (as in many others) meet once a week, usually have one debate on a current controversial topic per meeting, and raise funds to pay for the fall and spring conventions. One of the more interesting topic debates students will be arguing in Santa Clara is "Silence is Consent." Topics range from foreign policy to the environment.
The idea for Junior State was the dream of Professor E.A. Rogers, headmaster of a school for boys in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He felt a viable democracy needed to train its youth in the essentials of good government and that, without an informed populace, democracy was worthless. His students suggested a junior government -- an educational project to help create the statesmen and citizens of the future. As the idea jelled, students decided the organization would be non-partisan, non-sectarian, not-secret and nonprofit. Students would not only learn about democracy but would practice it. Today, Professor Rogers' 1934 dream has evolved into the largest student-run organization in the United States.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at email@example.com.