Public figures, members of Congress and other Washingtonians gathered recently to celebrate five years of Future Civic Leaders, an organization that fosters political engagement among high school students.
The Embassy of Luxembourg opened its doors on April 9 to about 200 people for “The Political Party.” The attendees milled around the first floor of the embassy enjoying specialty drinks, appetizers and gelato as a jazz trio played, all the while preparing for this summer's Future Civil Leaders conference.
While the atmosphere was certainly celebratory, the event also highlighted the importance of fostering political engagement as young people are increasingly disillusioned by partisan gridlock.
“A lot of people my age, in my generation, look at the government today and all they see is the shutdown or they see a dysfunctional government,” said Sarmat Chowdhury, a student at George Mason University who participated in the first Future Civic Leaders conference in 2009.
“Sometimes my colleagues and I don’t set a very good example,” Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., admitted, “but we need people to be committed to the leadership in government, to continue to focus on those issues that we know are important.”
Payne served as one of the event’s 12 congressional co-chairmen, along with former and current members of Congress including Reps. Leonard Lance, R-N.J.; Michael H. Michaud, D-Maine; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; Mark Pocan, D-Wis.; Aaron Schock, R-Ill.; and Tim Ryan, D-Ohio.
Polis and Schock have participated in past Future Civic Leaders conferences, with Schock even taking students onto the House floor and discussing his experience as a young member of Congress.
Through these interactions with lawmakers and other political figures, FCL teaches young people that they can participate in the political process and bring substantive change to their communities, despite economic or social barriers they may face.
The annual summer conference in Washington is free of charge and specifically engages students from “underserved” communities, who would be less likely to vote or participate in government.
“Very rarely do we have someone come in saying, 'I want to be a senator one day,' ” FCL’s Executive Director John McCarthy told CQ Roll Call. So, he said, the conference begins by having students identify the issues facing their own communities.
From there, experts and lawmakers teach students how to forge coalitions, fundraise and speak in public, showing the students that they can develop the skills necessary to foster change through political participation.
The strategy seems to be working. According to surveys conducted at the end of each conference, students said their interest in running for office increased by 71 percent and their interest in working on a political campaign increased by 91 percent.
McCarthy said members of Congress and political experts on both sides of the aisle have been receptive to the group’s mission. This July, FCL will once again bring 100 students from across the country to Washington, D.C. McCarthy said he hopes the FCL will eventually expand to “a year-round sustaining program.”
One of the event’s co-chairmen, Susan Eisenhower, said groups like FCL that engage young people from different backgrounds are essential to maintaining our democratic system.
“I think we always run the risk at this particular point in history that the problems look overwhelming, and they look like they’re being handled by other people,” said Eisenhower. “And it’s really vital for our democracy to convey a sense of ownership of this democracy.”