Written by Aishwarya Swamidurai
I never could have imagined the sheer significance that such an unassuming, yet amazing program like Youth and Government (YAG) would have in my life. Perhaps I should have realized the program’s name told me exactly what I would come to learn about before ever starting this journey: government.
My YAG journey began when I was just a small 7th grader. As a middle school student, there weren’t many things in life that I was truly passionate about. And even then, politics and governance were probably the last things you’d see on that list. To me, the ideologies and circumstances surrounding governmental processes were insipid and generally mediocre at best. Furthermore, as a woman of color, I didn’t see governance as a possibility for me- career or otherwise. It seemed too far away and too uninteresting. Suffice it to say, my thoughts about governance were not too kind.
That all changed at my first YAG conference in 7th grade, which was, to put it plainly, eye-opening. I didn’t know it at the time but being able to dip my toes in the waters of mock government allowed me a small glimpse into the excitement and experiences that I would later encounter throughout my time in YAG. It was in that moment that I saw governance in a new, bright light.
During the legislative session that year, I argued a bill I had written regarding workplace compensation for cancer patients. Though this was a bill that I had written simply to fulfill the requirements of the program, in a single day’s time it became something that I was excited and passionate about. Every time I debated, I was reminded of the huge and important implications a bill like this would have on our society. Standing on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, I became a representative in a far more personal sense. What courage I did have, I would use to try and debate bills. It was at YAG that I learned the importance of my voice.
Now I am a junior in high school, and my journey with the program continues. The experiences I have shared and processes I have been able to witness are ones that I would have never received had it not been for YAG. Year after year, my experiences in the legislative branch of Oklahoma’s state program have improved. My newly found fervor and passion for governance don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
To me, governance is no longer what I thought it used to be, which was admittedly rather cynical: I envisioned individuals who don’t look like me participating in monotonous meetings where they discuss how they’ll get more votes instead of debating substantive policies. Now I realize how active of a process governance is. It is something that matters and something that I care about because it is important and affects me and my fellow citizens.
It no longer felt impossible for me to take part in the political process like I previously believed; the word “impossible” became a matter of shifting my perspective to “I’m-possible.” The platform YAG provides for me and my peers to get involved in governance has helped me to realize that I’m possible, that we’re possible. I have learned that political efficacy is in the hands of the people and that through us, change is possible.
Every argument I made in the legislative chambers became a matter of how I can use my voice for good. I tried immersing myself in those arguments, because activism is more than just showing up; it is about doing the work and putting the “active” in “activism.” I would argue until my voice became hoarse and dry. I learned firsthand that changemaking can be painful physically and emotionally, but it is ultimately worthwhile. The arguments of my fellow student representatives and senators opened my eyes to important issues that plague our society, and their solutions brought a beacon of hope in what seems to be a darkening future for our generation.
Our annual state conference hosts a speaker panel of representatives and senators from our State Congress. I never thought I would get as excited as I did to hear these speakers. Learning about civic engagement became fun and central to my day-to-day activities.
Besides my state program, I have also been able to learn about changemaking and advocacy through other programs of YMCA YAG, such as Model and Legislative Day, YMCA Advocacy in Oklahoma and National Advocacy Days in Washington D.C. Participating in these advocacy efforts, learning from community leaders about how to make effective change, and laughing with peers while we work together on meaningful, community-betterment initiatives have all shown me how crucial it is that youth participate in our governance process. If we do not step up when it is necessary, no one will.
Today, the political state of our nation is in unrest, and this has added to the resentment toward our government that many citizens hold. I learned that watching from the sidelines is not the solution, but rather actively participating in our democracy by using my voice and engaging in meaningful discourse is.
For me, I began to see governance as a change-making process that belonged to the people. And thanks to YAG, I am determined to be someone who helps to make those changes.
Aishwarya Swamidurai is the Oklahoma YAG Speaker of the House, a 2021 Youth Governor Candidate and a Junior at Classen SAS.