Two days after the presidential election, students involved in the YMCA’s Center for Civic Engagement were scheduled to participate in a Model United Nations conference. Y organizers were a little concerned, wondering if students’ varied reactions to the election results might negatively affect the event. But they shouldn’t have worried.

“We were really impressed with the students’ behavior,” says Susan Moriarty, director of the Tennessee YMCA Center for Civic Engagement (or CCE). “Because we’re able to create a safe and caring environment, I think the students were able to have empathy for either side.”

The ability to empathize—such a critical skill in this divided political climate—is just one character trait the Y is building in middle and high schoolers hailing from 121 schools across the state.

Giving young people a voice

“We uphold the core values of the YMCA: honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility,” Moriarty says. “We teach kids that you can disagree with someone, but you can do it respectfully and kindly and not hurt someone’s feelings.”

As political tension in the U.S. has grown over the past year, YMCA programs like Model UN and Youth in Government (YIG) have grown with it; nearly 6,000 students statewide take part in the conferences, a 17% overall participation increase from the previous year. The Center for Civic Engagement has also added three middle school YIG conferences and one high school conference to meet the demand.

“I think students want to have a voice. And this is a place where they can have a voice in a way that’s different than at their school,” says CCE associate director Elise Addington Dugger.

Teaching hands-on lessons in leadership

This weekend, 445 of them will make their voices heard at the Tennessee State Capitol for one of three high school Youth in Government events offered each year, which puts students in the very seats occupied by Tennessee’s governing body. Students at the conference also stand in for other key players—lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, and justices.

Even though most aren’t even of voting age, they’re getting a head start in discovering what they believe and the untapped potential within themselves.

“They’re realizing what it means to be totally engaged in what’s happening in the world right now,” says Moriarty.

Each Youth in Government conference is the culmination of months of diligent research and practice. Those assigned to the house and senate defend the bills they’ve written while members of the press corps produce news reports, and justices hear arguments from teams of lawyers. Students in officer roles even get the chance to meet their real-life counterparts in Tennessee government.

Building valuable life skills

It’s the kind of exhilarating, real-world experience—all taking place in one of the country’s oldest working capitols—that builds critical skills teens need to take on the challenges of college and adulthood.

High school senior Starr Rhee presides over the Senate.

High school senior Starr Rhee, who’s serving as one of three Youth Governors this year, says she’s discovered that leading isn’t about being in charge, but about building up others. “We lead by example. And we lead because we want other people to be their best.”

Compromise is another key takeaway for students. Though the conference closely resembles the legislative process, students aren’t assigned a party affiliation, allowing them to think through their positions and learn what it means to meet in the middle. “Instead of being rigid on our party lines,” Starr says, “we can do what is best for the state of Tennessee.”

Nurturing potential, strengthening communities

Youth in Government is just one way in which the Y strives to bring up confident young adults who care about the world and their neighbors. In fact, our work of nurturing kids’ potential begins when they’re still in diapers.

From Y-Play on-site child care to after-school enrichment to summer programs like day camp, tens of thousands of kids and teens each year are developing skills and values that will help them reach their full potential as adults—making our community stronger for generations to come.

Read more about all the ways the YMCA Center for Civic Engagement builds tomorrow's leaders.