2024 Youth Legislative Assembly: Youth is served

The event was an intersection of education and politics for nearly 200 students

Youth Legislative Assembly
Members of the House get ready to debate bills during the 2024 Youth Legislative Assembly earlier this month. (A.P. Dillon / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — Nearly 200 students from across the state came to Raleigh for the 2024 Youth Legislative Assembly, an event where education and politics intersected from April 19-21.

Participants of the Youth Legislative Assembly (YLA) spent two days attending committee meetings, doing team-building exercises, and debating and passing bills in each chamber. The event ended with a dance and games on Saturday evening.

Committees spanned a wide range of topics including education, environment, judicial, public safety, homeland security and protecting energy sources in the state.

The 411 offers an in-depth look at the people and places that make North Carolina grow strong and great.

North State Journal went inside YLA during floor debate and passage of bills. What we found was a legion of motivated high school and early college students excited to participate in the legislative process.

Erica Gallion, coordinator of YLA since 2015, told North State Journal that setting up the event takes the better part of a year and she couldn’t be prouder of the students attending.

“To watch the children feel that self-confidence and watch how they feel and see how they grow. … It’s just so amazing just to watch them try to be the top cream of the crop for their peers,” Gallion said.

The average cost to attend is about $400 and includes meals, lodging, supplies, transportation and a T-shirt, according to Gallion.

The 2024 event was the 54th session of YLA. The 50th celebration was unable to be commemorated due to the pandemic shutdown.

NSJ spoke with some of the students, all of whom said they were happy to be there. Those who were attending for the first time said they would definitely come back.

Kamari Jones, a junior in early college in Sanford who was participating as a member of the Senate, said she was there to try out something new after YLA had been recommended to her.

“The most interesting thing (about YLA) is getting to know everybody and watch everybody and learn so I can get the experience and know what I’m doing,” Jones told NSJ.

Jones’ seatmate, Washington County’s Shenasia Stevens, is also an early college student and told NSJ it was her third year at YLA. She said the event is good practice for her as she wants to be a lawyer.

“I like getting to know the people. It’s really easy here,” Stevens said. “Everybody’s friendly and welcoming.”

Participating in the House proceedings, Henry Davis, a student at the Highland School of Technology in Belmont in Gaston County, was a first-timer at YLA.

“I’ve grown up around politics a little bit. My dad has run for two elections and won, and so that was one of my interests,” Davis told NSJ about why he came to YLA. “Number one, I just wanted to know what that looks like in Raleigh, and number two, I just want to see how our … legislature works.”

Youth Legislative Assembly
Esther Franklin, granddaughter of state Rep. Donna White (R-Johnston), presided over the YLA Senate. (A.P. Dillon / North State Journal)

Carson Rhoades, a junior at Holly Springs High School in Wake County, said he has a “keen interest in politics.”

“I really like politics and I’m studying politics,” said Rhoades. “Like Henry said, I’ve grown up around politics as well, and it’s always been something that’s been interesting to me.”

Jose Garcia Lopez, a second-year YLA attendee from Kinston in Lenoir County, said he was also drawn to the program due to an interest in politics.

“I’m interested in politics, to learn more about government and how the system works,” said Garcia Lopez. “I think this was a great opportunity to actually become a politician for 48 hours. I think it’s pretty cool.”

Sitting a row ahead of the three young men were Chloe Cookson — a sophomore at Thales Academy in Rolesville — and Wake County high school freshman Margaret Mann.

Cookson has been to YLA before and said she came back because she “loved the program so much.”

“Originally what drew me (to YLA) had to have been getting more involved in the process,” said Cookson. “Because I, as everyone before me, they’ve all been interested in politics, and I love the field of political science. And being in here and getting to see and meet other like-minded individuals and getting to learn about more about political science in the real world with them really means a lot to me.”

Mann said she came to YLA because her mother talks a lot about politics, making her want to learn more about it. She also said meeting new people was a highlight of the program.

The YLA program has been expanded beyond K-12 to the community college level.

Cameron Stewart, a Rockingham Community College graduate, is a former attendee of YLA and was chaperoning the event for the first time.

Stewart said she would love to be working in politics and learned about YLA through her involvement in the North Carolina Community College Student Government Association.

“As vice president and parliamentarian, I connected with other student government members who informed me about it,” said Stewart. “That’s how I met Erica Gallion, and collaborating with her has been fantastic.”

Stewart said YLA gives students hands-on experience and event organizers are focused on the students’ futures.

“I would say they encourage growth,” she said. “They help students network and build the connections that they need.”

Reps. John Torbett (R-Gaston) and Donna White (R-Johnston) were on hand to observe and assist where needed.

“It builds hope for the future,” Torbett said of why he volunteers at the YLA, “because I don’t always get that same hope when I deal with my own colleagues and my peers.

“We’re concerned about the future of our children’s educational level, and this gives us insight into where that is. There’s a tremendous amount of well-educated, thoughtful individuals in this room today.”

Youth Legislative Assembly
Senate Members Shenasia Stevens, left, and Kamari Jones await the start of bill presentation during the 2024 Youth Legislative Assembly. (A.P. Dillon / North State Journal)

White, whose granddaughter Esther Franklin has been an attendee for four years, said YLA is a program she’s been involved with since her children attended. This year, Franklin was presiding over Senate proceedings as lieutenant governor and told NSJ it was an honor to serve.

“And you know, when I look — I just know that that lived experience that I’ve had with YLA, my goal is just to give back as long as I have the opportunity to give back,” said White. “And I have just been so surprised at the participation, the involvement, the knowledge base, and the fact that they’re just so hyped and interested.”

White remarked that the Health and Human Services Senate Committee was “absolutely amazing” to watch.

“And it makes me feel so happy because there’s so much negative about politics and politicians, and it’s just amazing that they would come here and have a desire to continue to improve things and to be involved in the political Arena,” White said.

“It’s amazing.”

About A.P. Dillon 1293 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_