Charlie Effman’s first speech at Junior State of America was a nervous, mumbled mess.
Still, the audience applauded loudly.
Participating in JSA has helped Charlie immensely. Now co-president of Staples’ chapter of the national, non-partisan, student-led organization, he has learned about political debate, government, civic engagement, leadership and activism.
He’s grown comfortable speaking in public. Last spring, no one told him he had to give an opening statement at the Northeast Electoral Candidate Forum. He nailed it — on the fly.
Vice president Elana Atlas entered high school convinced that everyone was judging her, and her voice was not welcome. Nervous and quiet, she went to her first JSA meeting.
The day before her first overnight convention, she panicked. But she went — and fell in love with it. Debates, speakers, knowledgeable students, fun — it all drew her in.
Convention by convention, Elana progressed from hesitantly asking questions to confidently leading her group.
“It was a place where I found my people,” she now says. “I realized my opinions were valued, and worth sharing.” In fact, she says, JSA has defined her high school life.
At meetings, members debate everything from whether the US should get involved in military intervention, to whether or not dinosaurs would have been cool pets. They address complex, serious issues without scaring away newcomers.
“Meetings are safe places where students debate, discuss and learn, without being judged,” Charlie notes. “JSA is the perfect haven for young people to form their political understandings and beliefs.”
Convention speakers come from across the country — and along the entire political spectrum. Topics have ranged from free speech on college campuses to immigration. There are also activism workshops on topics like reproductive rights and gun legislation — again, allowing for a wide variety of opinions.
Charlie has written bills for the Winter Congress, clerked in a mock House of Representatives, run for elective office, and served as a mid- and high-ranking bureaucrat on the regional cabinet.
He’s learned to get endorsements, describe his platform, and win over voters. He’s found out how to talk about important issues with people he disagrees with — and how to take action. He’s discovered the highs and lows of politics, while having fun with friends.
Elana — now a convention coordinator for JSA’s entire Northeast State — debates “loudly, proudly, and most importantly, respectfully.” She runs meetings where she reaches out to students who remind her of her own freshman self.
“JSA taught me how to speak, and how to listen,” she says. “It taught me about different viewpoints, and allowed me to refine my own. JSA was life-changing.”
Club members attend 3 overnight conventions a year. The next is in February, in Washington, DC. It’s a great opportunity — but not everyone can afford to go.
JSA has set up a GoFundMe page. They’re already halfway there. To help the next generation of concerned citizens, click here.