There’s a famous quote, often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, that we must “be the change we wish to see in the world.” Few of us take the opportunity to meet that challenge. But each summer, members of the Florida 4-H Youth Development program from all over the state meet in Tallahassee for hands-on experience in debating the issues, voting on bills, and enacting laws that effect the changes they want to see.
It’s called Florida 4-H Legislature—“Leg” (pronounced ‘ledge’) for short. For 4-H youth ages 13-18, it’s an opportunity to learn how government works by participating in a simulated session of the state legislature. Around 109 youth from counties across Florida are expected to attend this year’s event, which runs June 20-24.
You may remember similar “mock” governments from your high school civics classes. This five-day event takes that experience to another level. 4-H Legislature leads students through the political process from start to finish. Within the Capitol Building, they take on the roles of senators, representatives, lobbyists, and media correspondents. They form committees, sponsor bills, meet with lobbyists, conduct press conferences, address the floor of the house and senate, and vote to pass laws.
And while the laws don’t go on the books officially, they address some of the most complex issues facing us today. This year, there are bills about taxing single-use plastics, teaching Black history in public schools, using familial DNA in criminal courts, and paid parental leave, among others.
The first Florida 4-H Legislature event was held in Tallahassee in 1973 and this year marks its 50th anniversary. That’s not a math error – instead, it speaks to the amount of planning that goes into each legislative session. The proposed bills are drawn up by a planning committee of 4-H youth in August of the previous year. When registration begins in the spring, participants are given a survey, where they can choose the role they want to play and the areas of legislation they’re most interested in. Some go for agriculture and natural resources, others are more interested in education or criminal justice. They then work with their local 4-H clubs and the statewide youth planning committee and the adult steering committee to learn about the issues they’ll be voting on, legislative procedures, and rules of conduct.
By the time youth arrive at the Capitol, they’re fully informed and ready to participate in democracy.
To maintain an even playing field, 4-H Leg does not use real-world political parties. Instead, there’s a Green Party and a Gold Party, each with their own platforms. Labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are not allowed, and students are encouraged to take a different side on the issues than they’re used to.
4-H youth come out of the program as active citizens with a better appreciation for the democratic process, a subtler understanding of complex issues, keener public speaking and team-building skills, as well as friendships and memories for a lifetime.
4-H Legislature and other programs like it give me hope for the future. If you look back at when Leg was created, it was a time of great social turmoil and distrust of government, with Vietnam and Watergate, student protests and civic conflicts. But it also saw the passing of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, a period of détente between superpowers and great progress in science and technology. 4-H Legislature grew out of a need for youth to express their views in a constructive way and learn how to take part in the process of making positive change. Today’s times are just as tumultuous, and 4-H Leg offers a model for civil discourse and a pathway to cooperation, not only for 4-H’ers but for all of us.
By giving youth a chance to test-drive government, we are preparing the leaders of the future and preserving our democracy.
For more about Florida 4-H Legislature, visit https://florida4h.ifas.ufl.edu/events/legislature/
Thanks to Kelsey Cook and Ronda Banner for assisting with this blog.