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Immersive Civic Skill Building: American Legion's Utah Boys State and Utah Girls State

We met with Cary Fisher of the American Legion Auxiliary/Utah Girls State and Doug Case of American Legion Utah Boys State to learn more about their programs and what they offer to educators looking for meaningful and truly immersive civic skill building for their students.

UCLC's Judi: First, what is Girls State? What is Boys State? What is American Legion? What is the American Legion Auxiliary?

Cary: Utah Girls State is a weeklong immersive course in Utah State government. It is available to girls between their junior and senior year in high school. We teach about the government, Americanism, patriotism, service to veterans with hard work and fun. The ALA Utah Girls State staff is all volunteer-driven.

The American Legion Auxiliary is the female veterans and direct female descendants of deceased veterans or veterans belonging to The American Legion. Our mission is service to active duty members and veterans and their families, as well as community. ALA Girls State is our largest program.

Doug: Boys State is a week that can change a boy’s life. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn through doing and practice how our democracy is supposed to work. The American Legion is the country's largest war-time veterans organization with 12,400 Legion Posts around the world.

In Utah, we have over 90 Posts with roughly 7,500 members. The American Legion’s ambition is to assist veterans including active duty military and their families, mentor youth through programs like Boys/Girls State, Oratorical Contest, Baseball, Scouting, and Shooting Sports, and work to improve communities.

What is Girls State’s/Boys State’s purpose, target, goals with respect to preparation for civic life in K-12, in particular building character, civic dispositions, and other “desirable traits of an upright citizenry” (Utah code)?

Cary: ALA Utah Girls State’s purpose is to empower young women by teaching about government processes and how they can be involved. We also teach about civil dialog, that it’s okay to agree to disagree, and about respect for themselves, others and their country. We focus on responsible citizenship, leadership, and love for God and country. The Auxiliary also has programs for younger grades - the Americanism Essay Contest, Poppy Poster Contest, Veterans in the Classroom, Star Spangled Kids, Youth Hero and Youth Good Deed awards, and Youth Caregiver Award.

Doug: Boys State provides a safe environment supervised by a number of veterans, police officers and teachers, all volunteer at a ratio of about 1 to 6. It’s designed to empower boys, give them a voice, and let them learn how to have civil dialog, emphasizing respect. The purpose is to cultivate a positive attitude in our students; understanding of civic engagement and why it all matters. Our target is to inspire young men of every demographic with a love of country, duty, obligation, and appreciation of the rights and responsibilities of being a productive and engaged citizen. We send them back to their communities better equipped to participate in the democratic process.

Do you have any stories or examples you can share about students benefiting from your programs?

Cary: One of our past ALA Utah Girls State Governors is currently Miss Rodeo Utah. Every day she practices the leadership skills she learned at Girls State. Many Girls State alumnae show up as interns or lobbyists at the Utah State Capitol and in Washington DC. Because Weber State University offers these girls scholarships, many have a chance to attend University that they would not necessarily have had on their own; and for their participation they can earn college credits.

Doug: Interested persons can visit to see a list of prominent Boys State graduates. We have reports of boys getting favorable nods when applying for graduate programs, military academies, internships, and more. Some graduates may not realize the benefit until later in life, but a big benefit is networking and making lifelong friends. We frequently have boys that are troubled, dealing with issues that are consuming them. We welcome everyone equally without judgment and in many ways represent good father (grandfather in my case) figures who are open, receptive and understanding. The difference we make is helping boys come out of their shell, become more confident in themselves, and begin to demonstrate positive character traits.

How can teachers and classrooms participate in your programs? Do you have any training or events coming up that we can help promote?

Cary: We would welcome visits from teachers during our session to see what we do. We would enlist their assistance in promoting this program in their schools. We are currently looking for citizens to attend the 2022 session in June, registration ends on March 31. We also welcome volunteers for counselors and staff.

Doug: As mentioned above, we do have a few teachers from time to time volunteer to help in our program and always welcome them aboard. Our door is open to teachers that might want to visit and observe our program in action. In terms of promoting our program, we’re always looking for help from schools in getting boys interested and signed up so any help in that area is certainly welcome. Get the Flyer HERE.

Doug, you’ve spoken eloquently in support of HB 273 Civics Education Amendments at the Utah Capitol…What about this proposal draws your eye? More specifically, how do you imagine Boys State could be engaged in local innovations in civic teaching and learning (what HB 273 proposes to support)?

Doug: This is an interesting question and I have given it a good deal of consideration. The old adage, it takes a village comes to mind. As I have mentioned, I believe our society is fractured. Further I believe the issues that young people are dealing with from suicide to bullying are in many ways symptomatic of a larger social issue. Many young people really have only two outlets or methods of communicating and expressing themselves. One is in school and the other is digital media. I think much of the time those of us that have a good stable home life live in a bubble and think every family is like ours. But for far too many this is not the case. So, the broad stroke of HB 273 that I’m most hopeful about is developing a functional relationship with understanding, engagement, acceptance, built on a contract between mentor and student of trust and respect. Without trust we cannot move on to deal with the underlying issues tearing at the fabric of our citizenry.

As for engaging with Boys State, I believe the bigger question, challenge for some of us will be engaging with our Legion members at large. Those of us carrying the torch of Boys State will do everything possible to help students become better informed citizens that are prepared to join the generational pursuit of preserving democracy.

Cary: Doug covers this well, I would add that we need to teach more civil dialog, media literacy, and that women do have a place in all levels of government.

What brought you to the Utah Civic Learning Collaborative? Where would you like it to focus its efforts?

Cary: I received an invite a couple of years ago and frankly looked at it as a possible way to network and advertise our ALA Utah Girls State program. The American Legion Auxiliary is also involved in legislation that supports our programs.

Doug: Actually I was invited into the circle by Judi and Cary Fisher of Girls State. Once the bill is signed, I believe the first order of business is to figure out how to get statewide buy in.

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