YMCA Youth and Government
Contributing writer, Ben Herman

“Democracy must be learned by each generation”. This motto of the YMCA Youth and Government program perfectly embodies the values of youth development and social responsibility that the YMCA promotes. Founded in the tradition of citizenship, Youth and Government has looked to create more thoughtful and informed citizens. As we celebrate the one hundred and fifty years of the Cortland YMCA, let us take a journey through the history of one of the YMCA’s core programs.

YMCA Youth and Government actually originated in New York State in the year 1936. The program was founded by Clement Duran, the Boys Work Secretary for the Albany YMCA. Many YMCAs at the time had been holding conferences for high school-aged boys to discuss the issues of the day, but many longed for a way to actually propose change. In came Clement Duran, who created the mock government system in which high schoolers create mock bills and debate them in a formal manner. What was originally going to be a small conference held in a local YMCA gained statewide recognition when Duran approached the governor of New York, Herbert Lehman, and asked to use the actual state legislature building. The governor was thrilled with the idea and offered up the state capital building for a weekend. To this day, Youth and Government delegates still get the privilege of debating within the chambers of the state capitol building.

Not only did the first participants in Youth and Government get to debate in the capital, but their bills actually got a chance to make a difference. In fact, the governor was so excited with this idea, he arranged to have each bill proposed to be given to a state legislature to have a chance at becoming a law. In just the first year of Youth and Government, five student-created bills became actual laws in New York State. The ability for passed bills at Youth and Government conferences to be brought to the actual state assemblies is another tradition that has stayed in the program to this day. Examples of laws today that have originated at Youth and Government conferences include the creation of the dotted passing line on roads and the ability to turn right on red.

Youth and Government has continued to evolve to the changing state of the YMCA. At first, Youth and Government was done through local Hi-Y clubs, YMCA clubs for high schoolers. As time went on there was a transition away from Hi-Y clubs and rather direct involvement with the local YMCAs. Additionally, in 1967, the first Conference on National Affairs was held, expanding the reaches of Youth and Government to a national level. The program continued to add on more layers such a judicial system that holds mock trials. Youth and Governments merit and importance has been recognized by many, including the American Bar Association, who became a supporter of the program in 2000. In all, 47,000 students in 37 states participate in Youth and Government each year.

The Cortland club had great success at early conferences. The club got its first governor in 1949 when Harley Albro was elected by the entire Youth and Government delegation. In the earlier years of the program, the club, made up of schools in Cortland County, consistently made up almost one-fourth of the entire New York State delegation. Cortland was also home to a regional conference each year for clubs in the Southern Tier of New York.

As time went on, the participation in the Cortland YMCA Youth and Government program declined. With fewer people, the club combined with Syracuse clubs to form a district, rather than making up one district by themselves. This meant that the regional conference originally in Cortland, has shifted to being held in Rochester. However, despite fewer numbers, the club has maintained a high level of success with Andrew Jacobi serving as governor in 2016 and the club as a whole receiving the premiere district award for the last 18 years.

As one of the core programs of the Cortland YMCA, Youth and Government has brought Cortland County youth the chance to learn the functions of government and become more informed citizens. Youth and Government also fosters communication skills and social skills as the teens meet many new people each year, some of which became close friends. For many who attend, their weekend at the State Capital is the best weekend of the year. Because of these elements, Youth and Government is able to combine fun with education and prove that the YMCA is “more than a gym”.