Palisades-Malibu YMCA Youth Participate in Government

By Sue Pascoe

The YMCA Youth and Government program operates under the slogan “Democracy Must Be Learned By Every Generation.”

Faced by this challenge, the Palisades-Malibu YMCA is doing its part. Two years ago there were 11 girls in the inaugural high school program, led by Ashley Russell. Last year 30 boys and girls participated, and this fall there are 70 students in Youth and Government.

One of the original 11 participants, Palisades High School senior Elsa Nethercot, who is applying early action to UC Berkeley, is this year’s president.

“I wanted to take AP government because of this program,” Nethercot said. “It has improved my public speaking, and I’ve met amazing people who are supportive of me.”

Members of the YMCA Youth and Government program learn about democracy with a hands-on learning model. Photo: Bart Bartholomew
Members of the YMCA Youth and Government program learn about democracy with a hands-on learning model.
Photo: Bart Bartholomew

The program was founded in the mid- 1930s by Clement “Pete” Duran, an Albany, New York YMCA Director, who wanted to find a way for youth to become active participants in government. He developed a hands-on, learning-by-participation model to help youth learn how community problems are solved through the democratic process.

The six-month program was initiated in 1948 in California with support from Governor Earl Warren, and has been sup- ported by each successive governor.

The program is open to all high school students, private and public. Until recently this local group met weekly at the YMCA on Via de la Paz, but with its growth and the need for a larger space, it now meets at PaliHi.

At a recent meeting, officers Erika Siao (VP), Riley Newkirk (Chaplin), Cleo Hoffman (treasurer), Makayla Micheini (parliamentarian) and Gretel Payne (historian) joined Nethercot in introducing themselves.

The members of the group were reminded at the beginning of the meeting, “It is better to speak with a shaky voice, than not to speak at all.”

Breaking the ice, one student said, “I am not having a good day. My test didn’t go well and my coach is being mean.” Another offered, “I got my license today,” and somebody else said, “I got an A on my chemistry test.”

Russell, the group advisor, explained that after the opener, groups usually debate several current events. That day’s discussion included crew neck vs. hooded sweatshirts; plastic bags; Ebola and college rape.

In addition to weekly meetings, the group travels to two training conferences held at Camp Roberts near San Luis Obispo: one over Veterans Day and the second over the Martin Luther King holiday.

In February, Youth and Government students travel to Sacramento. “We take over the capital and courthouse,” Nethercot said. “There are 3,000 of us and we are on the assembly floor debating, and giving speeches.”

Some students participate in additional program areas including broadcast and print media, lobbying, the Board of Education, political parties and debating national issues.

Russell, who has worked with the YMCA for 10 years and has also served as an advisor for after school camps and Guides and Princesses, is currently working on her early-childhood degree at Cal State Northridge. Although she was contacted about an interview, Russell let the students speak to the writer. It was obvious there was mutual respect.

“She sacrifices a lot to be with us,” Nethercot said.

Russell explained: “They keep me on my toes; they challenge me.” Although the cost of the program is $1,650 and includes travel, housing and meals, Russell said the group does fundraisers and that some financial assistance is available.

Visit: or call Palisades-Malibu YMCA, (310) 454-5591.

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