In the waning days of July, a group of young women came to Washington to learn how government works.
They left with their own proposals for legislation.
And the kicker? They’re all still in high school.
These girls are part of the American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) Girls Nation, a program developed to introduce teenage girls from across the country to public service.
“They’re here to learn about political process and about the basic process of U.S. constitution and how the government operates,” said Mary “Deubie” Buckler, executive director of ALA National. “They’re here to learn what the government is and how it’s processed and engage in civil debate.”
The program could be a stepping stone to getting involved with politics, in a time when women already are stepping up their civic engagement. A study by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University shows that a record number of women around the United States are running for governors and senators in 2018.
Most women were inspired to run after Hilary Clinton’s loss in 2016, partly fearing a Republican White House could get rid of Planned Parenthood, according to Emily’s List, an organization that helps elect female Democratic candidates.
According to CAWP, 468 women have filed to run for the U.S. House of Representatives as of June, compared to 268 in 2016.
Per CAWP, as of June, 51 women have filed for Senate candidacy, compared to 40 in 2016. And 61 women are running for governor in their respective states, nearly double the previous record set in 1991 of 31.
But perhaps their desire to run for office shouldn’t be a surprise. The election of President Donald Trump led to the organization of the Women’s March, which attracted 2.6 million people worldwide in 2017. And an estimate of between 1.6 million and 2.5 million people were in attendance at this year’s Women’s March worldwide, according to Vox.
Still, ALA Girls Nation existed long before the latest pushes for women civic engagement. Founded in 1947, ALA said it counts more than 6,500 women as alumni of its nationwide program.
Its reach, though, is far bigger: Every year 7,000 girls, all high school seniors, participate in summer state programs.
Among them, only 100 girls are selected to participate on the national level.
Prior to arriving to Washington, they are taught how bills become law. From there, two girls are selected from each state through a rigorous application process.
They then arrive for the week long program, acting as “senators” representing their states. The organization divides the girls in two made-up political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. As a nonpartisan organization, their focus is not on which parties the girls should choose, but rather civility discourse, Buckler said.
“We teach the girls the importance of civility, respecting people who disagree with you and encouraging them to elevate the level of civility and public discourse by what they have learned through this week long experience,” Buckler said.
Hoda Abdalla, of Lexington, S.C., said she joined the ALA State Program because she knew it would benefit her.
“It would be inspiring to be in an environment with such empowered women and women who believe in positive policy discussion and believe that we are the future leaders of America,” Abdalla said.
“That’s why I’m honored to be a part of this program. “
For Abdalla, civic engagement means giving back to her country.
“Both of my parents were actually born in Sudan… and it’s almost surreal because America has given me so much,” she said. “It’s given me the freedoms I have today that I would otherwise not have back home.”
Abdalla plans to study medicine in college, but she still would like to run for public office someday.She wants to make sure she does her part to contribute to society.
Abdalla said she wants to combine her passion for politics and healthcare because they almost “complement” each other.
“I feel like having that background will really benefit me because a lot of times, we aren’t really aware of what’s wrong with our health care system and how we can fix it,” she said.
Abdalla met with her state’s U.S. senators, Republicans Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and asked about what inspired them and the advice they would give to young future leaders.
She and her “co-senator” wrote a bill about making automatic voter registration national. Under their legislation, if you interacted with any government agency, you would automatically be registered to vote because they already collected your information. Abdalla wants to make sure access and voting had no issues.
Abdalla was selected by her peers as the 72nd president of ALA Girls Nation during the week.
Suzie Cho of Lincoln, Nebraska, chose to participate in ALA Girls Nation because she believes it’s important for people to learn about their government. Cho, 17, does not plan to run for public office, but wants to go into the medical field and work on public health.
Her role model is Mary Travis Bassett, the current public health commissioner in New York City and the first African American to hold such a position.
“She’s done lots of great work at getting people involved in taking their own communities’ health in their own hands,” Cho said of Travis Bassett. “Especially by turning public offices in New York City into really vibrant community centers.”
Cho discussed human trafficking and national security with her senators, Republican Ben Sasse and Democrat Deb Fischer.
She said she hopes her senators understand that young people in Nebraska and across the country are excited about getting involved in civic engagement.
“It’s important for young people to get involved in civic action especially because of the fact that issues on the local and federal level are more pressing than ever,” Cho said. “ Young people being invested in their own communities is such an important block for those communities.”
Paris Miller of Buffalo, N.Y., joined the program because she wanted to learn more about the government.
“Even a month ago, if you would’ve told me, I would be here I would not believe you,” the 16-year-old said. “It’s so incredible, I can’t articulate it.”
She met with Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats from New York. Miller wants to be an engineer and was particularly inspired by her little brother who is autistic and has a difficult time communicating. According to Miller, with a bioengineering degree, she can create a computer that scans and analyzes brain waves to figure out communication.
Her bill, created with her fellow “senator” from New York, aimed to help people stop eating unhealthy. It would remove signs on the side of the road that advertised fast food restaurants.
“Our bill is about decreasing people’s exposure to junk foods.” Miller said.
Miller said she hoped to be remembered by her fellow “senators” and to be nominated for a scholarship.