Making Democracy Work: Civic education, first hand, at Students Inside Albany conference

Making Democracy Work: Civic education, first hand, at Students Inside Albany conference

The New York State Capitol building in Albany. File photo

By Lisa Scott

It’s not often that high school students are so positively impacted by a conference held in Albany!

“Now I truly understand the importance of citizens’ perspectives.”

“I feel more empowered to vote and lobby since I am now pre-registered AND I know how to lobby.”

“I learned how to use my voice and know that it is heard even though I’m only one person.”

“It was great to learn about government and hear from the perspectives of students from all over New York State.”

59 energetic and enthusiastic sophomores, juniors and seniors, representing 40 League of Women Voters groups from throughout New York State, were selected to attend the 2024 Students Inside Albany conference in May. They were geographically and politically diverse, with varying backgrounds, interests, and college goals. Over four days, they learned how our New York State government works, including the roles of its various branches and the differences between the state government and the other levels of government (e.g. national and local).

Students started the first full day with a tour of the Chambers of the Court of Appeals (NYS’s highest court) and heard about the different levels of the judiciary. Then they climbed the hill to the Capitol and Legislative Office Building, where they were directed to find their Assemblymember’s offices. Many were able to shadow their Legislator. All of the students were escorted onto the Assembly floor and introduced on the floor of the Chamber. They viewed the legislators at their desks and the Chamber in session. 

The day ended with reporters who cover the state politics sharing insights on how to decide what to cover, how to report quickly for social media sites, and how they started their own careers in the media. 

The second full day found Blair Horner, Executive Director of NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group), and Alexis Goldsmith, National Organizing Director with Beyond Plastics, presenting information to the students on the methods they use to advocate for issues important to their organizations. These organizations reach the public in diverse ways and use varied techniques. Blair was also able to speak to the students about NYPIRG’s involvement on college campuses, especially of interest to those students moving on to college next year. 

Later that day some students were able to shadow their state Senator, but rules prohibited them from the floor so they watched from the Gallery. The long day ended with an engaging session on running for office, including how to gather signatures for petitions, work with the parties, fundraise and participate in candidate debates. The students had many questions about the exact procedures and were encouraged to consider running for office at the local level.

The final day included a review of what the students saw in the Assembly and Senate Chambers, focused on procedures and voting in both Chambers and the role of leadership in each Chamber. The students were also asked if their opinions of the political process had changed and 32 indicated that they now are interested in running for office someday. 13 students were also offered internships with their Legislator.  

Voting in New York State was discussed as a method for learning how to make their voices heard and how to influence public policy decision-making. The process for registering to vote and to vote itself were presented to the students and they were invited to complete a voter registration form if they hadn’t done so already. Young people  may pre-register at 16 or 17 but cannot vote until they are 18. The options of ways to vote for those going away to college in the fall was also discussed. 

How were students affected by this experience? As one wrote: “It’s life changing in the sense that you learn to listen and understand the opinions of others from all over even if they’re conflicting to your own.”

The annual Students Inside Albany Conference is a service of the  strictly nonpartisan League of Women Voters of New York State Education Foundation, Inc. (LWVNYEF) which works primarily on projects that enlighten the electorate and empower through education, without advocating for any particular cause or policy, party or candidate. LWVNYSEF is committed to increasing citizen knowledge of and participation in their government and  believes that the basis of a strong democracy is an enlightened, educated citizenry.

Lisa Scott is president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County. For more information, visit https//my.lwv.org/new-york/suffolk-county.

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