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High schoolers explore public affairs, community service at Democracy Camp

News Type College News
School board members (clockwise from lower left) Jocelyn Rhynard (Dayton City), Micah Covert (Nelsonville-York City) and Lynda O’Connor (Lokota Local) talk to students Adelaide Petras, Patrick Bertke and Hannah Hiller, all from Upper Arlington High School, and Libby Worthy of Madison High School during Democracy Camp.
By Joan Slattery Wall

After hearing Shannon Hardin share his public service experiences and 2018 election as the youngest and first openly gay Columbus City Council president in city history, high school student Libby Worthy wanted more insight.

“Do you think you can make more change working in local government than at the state or national level?” Worthy asked during the John Glenn College of Public Affairs Democracy Camp this week.

“Local government is the last best place where government works,” Hardin answered without hesitation. “It does because we’re not so infiltrated by special interests.

“Also, you have direct proximity to the people and problems,” he said, explaining how that makes it easier to find solutions quickly.

Worthy, a rising senior at Madison High School in Madison, Ohio, attended the Democracy Camp at the recommendation of her Advanced Placement government teacher. The camp gave her an opportunity to explore Ohio State, which she hopes to attend after graduation.

“I come from a politically involved family with strong political beliefs, and I’ve always considered myself a people person,” she said of her inclination toward public affairs and public policy. “I’m really interested in enacting change within the community.”

This year’s Democracy Camp was a one-day conference packed with conversation and education about local government engagement, voting and the 2022 election and hot policy topics. Worthy was among 21 rising high school juniors and seniors who learned from public service professionals and Glenn College instructors at the camp, which is offered free of charge. The students also got a closer look at local government during a session shared with the college’s Public Leadership Academy for elected officials.

After talking to current Glenn College students at the camp, Worthy said, she’s leaning toward obtaining a degree in public policy with a minor in journalism or political science.

The Democracy Camp participants, who came from across the state, participated in a civic engagement activity with Associate Professor Jill Clark; explored advocacy with Nazek Hapasha, policy affairs manager for the League of Women Voters of Ohio; and learned about the college application process.

New this year, they met participants of the college’s Public Leadership Academy, which brings together a bipartisan group of rising Ohio elected officials to learn from each other and build lasting relationships across political boundaries. The elected school board members, city and county government leaders and state legislators volunteered their time to talk to the students and answer questions about their work.

Patrick Bertke, a rising senior at Upper Arlington High School, said he is exploring public policy as a major. He wants to help bring light to underrepresented groups, and one field he’s particularly interested in is helping create universal health care.

“I saw the Democracy Camp as kind of like a test run to see if it’s something I’m interested in after high school,” Bertke said. “I’ve really enjoyed it — hearing from people from across the public affairs spectrum and seeing different (career) options for after college.”

Also during the camp, three Glenn College graduates who are working in public affairs encouraged the high school students to follow their passions.

“Don’t forget why this matters to you right now,” Julia Dennen, director of voter and community engagement for Friends of Shannon Hardin, said, referring to the students’ excitement about attending Democracy Camp. “If you dig into the passion you have, you’re going to be able to do great things with great people.”

Jacob Spiegel, operations director for Jeffrey Crossman’s campaign for election as Ohio Attorney General, told the students that working with people smarter than themselves will help keep them resilient in challenging public affairs positions.

“You’re not the first person to be organizing. You’re not the first person to be running an impossible race or working on this issue,” he said. “Surround yourself with people who did it before.”

Anastasia Martinez, senior campaign manager at Ohio Women’s Alliance, told the students that after her first public affairs experiences, she discovered the value of aiming high.

“I learned it’s going to be really hard, but when you’re thinking about what you want in life, how you want your kids’ lives to be, always ask for that big ask,” she said. “There’s always a way to get that pie-in-the-sky idea you want.”

All three encouraged the students to take care of themselves and their mental health as they progress through college and their careers.

“Tell people your boundaries and your needs,” Dennen said, advising the students to avoid a position with 24/7 demands. “If they can’t meet them, that’s not a person you want to work for.”

Spiegel said campaigns are always looking for volunteers and interns.

“You guys are really powerful. You are young and energetic, and people need that,” he said. “If you see a campaign, organization or issue you want to get involved in, just reach out.”

Learn more about the Democracy Camp at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs.