A capitol affair

By Gus Bode

SPRINGFIELD – At 5:50 in the morning on Saturday while the rest of Carbondale was probably either fast asleep or on the tail end of another Friday night party, an old charter bus creaked to a stop in lot 100 across from the old Lincoln Middle School basketball courts.

“It’s a groovy old bus,” bus driver Mark Robinson said. “I mean this is a freedom fighter’s bus. It probably saw some civil rights trips.”


A small crowd of dreary eyed high school students from Carbondale and Carterville had already began gathering to be checked in for the trip to Springfield.

“I haven’t even slept yet, but I got these energy drinks,” Carbondale Community High School student Montana Winchester said, holding up a grocery sack full of a half dozen energy drinks. “I’ll be alright.”

“This will be a trip to remember, for sure,” Michael Burrows, an ambassador for SIUC’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said as he checked the students off of his list.


Within the next 15 hours these aspiring young leaders would meet Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock and a handful of other movers and shakers in state politics at Youth Government Day 2007.

The Paul Simon Public Policy institute provides this opportunity for young people in Illinois to go to the state’s capitol in order to learn some of the mechanics of politics and how they can get involved.

Institute Director Mike Lawrence said attendance was three times that of last year’s and he hopes the trend continues.

After a three-hour bus ride, students passed through the threshold of the Capitol building. Every surface seemed to be made of gleaming marble and the bronze statues of past Illinois leaders looked down from their lofty perches lining the walls of the enormous dome above the main hall.

Schock had already begun speaking when the students from southern Illinois arrived at the main chambers of the House of Representatives.

Schock, 25, told students sitting in the seats how he had managed to beat an incumbent by a narrow margin to become the youngest member of the House.

He encouraged students to get involved in local politics and said diversity is important to a healthy democracy.

“Our strength is in diversity,” he said. “We don’t need 118 white male, 60-year-old attorneys running the House.”

Students asked Schock a number of questions spanning a broad spectrum once he concluded his story. Some showed concern for many of today’s pressing political concerns, including the war in Iraq and the crisis in Darfur.

Schock said, as a state representative, he does not concern himself politically with issues that fall within the national or international realm.

Another major issue students raised was the price of higher education, something that hits close to home for SIUC students and those at many other state schools in light of increasing tuition and fees.

Schock assured students that education funding is an important issue for him personally and is a continuous debate in the state legislature.

“Surely folks down at SIU should get some more money,” he said.

In response to whether or not he has aspirations to move onto federal government eventually, Schock said he is concentrating on where he is now.

“Who knows whose going to die or not be around for some reason for the next term? Or in our state, who knows whose going to get indicted?” he said, eliciting waves of laughter from the crowd.

Several young people representing Mikva Challenge, an organization that gives Chicago youth an opportunity to get involved with politics, spoke on the importance of youth action and empowerment.

“It’s often said that youth are the future, but we are the present. We are here now and we have to stand up and be heard,” said Mikva member LaDarius Beal.

Part of the organization’s presentation included an exercise where students thought of a problem and corresponding solution, then discussed them with someone they had not yet met.

Carbondale Community High School senior Whitney Gates, 18, said one of her concerns is the lack of freedom students have at CCHS, which has become a closed campus and has restricted students on multiple levels since moving to it’s new location in 2003, she said.

“We should have more freedom. We’re young adults,” she said. “I might not let the freshman and sophomores leave campus, but juniors and seniors should be able to.”

Jovan Williams, a recent CCHS graduate, said issues such as drugs and criminal gang activity are important to him.

“A lot of young kids like to act like they’re in gangs. You know, selling drugs and stuff like that,” he said. “If we could give them something they could do, it’d be better. That could stop a lot of stuff.”

The students also heard from Madigan, who detailed her career and some lessons she learned along the way.

Speaking of her experience teaching in apartheid South Africa, she said, “I learned about strength. I learned about perseverance. I learned about trying to make a difference despite how hard or horrible the environment may be.”

The students also heard from 22-year-old lobbyist DeJuan Kea, who had some advice for young people interested in politics or any other field.

“You have to be persistent and go out and get what you want,” Kea said. “If you have goals, don’t let anyone tell you they’re too big or unrealistic.”

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