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Girls Are Taking Over the Capitol

This week, the Capitol will receive a whole batch of new Senators — but don’t worry, you didn’t miss a special election. These potential policymakers are part of Girls Nation, a government training program for 98 young women entering their senior years of high school.

Girls Nation is run through the American Legion Auxiliary, which aims to empower women in politics and supports veterans and their families. Throughout the year, close to 20,000 high school girls participate in small-scale simulations in their home states, learning about the mechanisms of government and policymaking. Out of this large pool, two girls from each state are selected to serve as “Senators” in the weeklong Washington, D.C., program.

Unlike secondary school courses or college seminars, the Girls Nation program does not follow a traditional classroom format. Instead, the honorary Senators spend the week divided into two fictional political parties — the Federalists and the Nationalists — working toward establishing party platforms, pushing bills on the floor, preparing for their respective conventions and electing a nominee for president.

“It really gets them thinking more about political dynamics,” said Andrea Dobson, a high school teacher who also heads the government staff at Girls Nation. “Even though we have mock political parties, on this small scale there still is a two-party system that they have to work with, and they have to learn to get along with the other side.”

Dobson said the big national issues on which the girls focus vary from year to year; this year, she expects to see a lot of discussion surrounding health care, trade relations and the environment.

“[Senators] usually choose issues where pretty much everyone feels the same way [within the party]; they spend lots of time defining their platforms, often spilling into meal times,” she said. “They tend to stay away from controversial issues like abortion or gay marriage … typically, as a candidate, you don’t want to come out on those issues, anyway, or you’ll polarize your audience.”

Some of this year’s participants are looking to each other and their professional counterparts for inspiration as they draft their own bills.

“The bill that I wrote with my partner is for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program; it was put through the Finance Committee [on Thursday], which was really exciting,” said Emily Rapp, a Nationalist party member whose interest in politics stemmed from living in the action-filled state of New Hampshire. “In our case, if the Senate or House aren’t able to authorize the bill, this would be a resolution encouraging states to reauthorize the funding.”

Kendahl Avery, a Federalist from Laramie, Wyo., is putting forth a bill on the Endangered Species Act: “My partner and I said we’d like to give more power back to the states, because in each state, there are different issues, and once an animal gets placed on [the endangered species list] it’s almost impossible to get off … in Wyoming, we have a problem with wolves eating crops, but since they’re endangered farmers can’t do anything about them.”

Rapp and Avery, along with Nationalist Marissa Benavides from Kearney, Neb., spoke with enthusiasm about their determination to join the political community to help make things happen.

Benavides described her interest in humanitarian issues such as the crisis in Darfur and environmental sustainability. She said she will pursue a career in politics “if that’s the way I can change the world for the better … I just want to make a positive difference in the world, whether it’s as president of the United States or president of a multinational corporation.”

Rapp, whose cause of choice is accessible health care, has a similar standpoint. Avery is unsure what line of work she’ll settle into, but her awe for the political process is clear.

“Politicians can actually make a difference,” she insisted. “They’re the ones who have a voice and can do things for the people. Some people think [politics is] a waste, but it’s how our country’s run.”

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