Key Issues

Girls State


From 1995 to 2007 I was an active volunteer with the American Legion Auxiliary’s Girls State program. I lived in Indiana at the time and spent a week each summer volunteering at Hoosier Girls State. The citizens in this mythical state, hundreds of girls who had just finished their junior year in high school, learned firsthand how state governments operate.

Divided into 24 cities and six counties and split between two parties, the citizens of Hoosier Girls State selected leadership, campaigned and ran for office, and worked together to form various levels of government. They learned the importance of effective government and representation. As a volunteer, I was tasked with leading citizens at the county level and helped them learn about how the political parties operate and how effective county government is established.

Although I haven’t volunteered at Girls State in almost two decades, I remain a political junkie. I volunteer for political campaigns, lobby my elected officials, and appreciate effective representation at all levels of government. I’ve also spent the years away from Hoosier Girls State wondering how a significant portion of citizens lack a fundamental understanding of how their government works. This knowledge gap is a critical issue that undermines the very foundation of our democracy.

How did we get here? The United States’ current educational system often falls short of providing comprehensive civic education. Schools tend to prioritize subjects like math and science over civics, leaving students ill-equipped to navigate political systems and processes. Many students graduate with just a basic understanding of governance if any at all.

Rapid changes in technology have reshaped information consumption and shifted how citizens interact with the news. While the internet offers plenty of verified news sources, it also cultivates misinformation and disinformation, leading to a distorted view of government functions. This misinformation fuels distrust in institutions and perpetuates misconceptions about the roles and responsibilities of elected officials.

Citizens may also feel the language of politics and governance is too complicated, acting as a barrier to successfully engaging with governmental affairs. The nature of legislative processes and bureaucratic procedures can alienate constituents, creating detachment from the very systems designed to serve them.

The consequences of these knowledge gaps are far-reaching. An informed citizenry is the foundation of a healthy democracy because it empowers individuals to hold their representatives accountable and participate in important decision-making processes. Without an understanding of government structures, citizens are more likely to be manipulated by misinformation, unable to discern between fact and fiction, and vulnerable to rhetoric that thrives on exploiting a lack of knowledge.

Engaging every citizen in a government simulation like Girls State isn’t feasible but there are things we can do. Hope isn’t lost. Individuals can have an impact as well as education systems and the people responsible for the media that we all consume.

The top priority must be education systems that prioritize civic education. Students need to be taught not just about historical events but also about the mechanisms of government, the rule of law, and the importance of civic engagement. This education should be ongoing, extending into adulthood through accessible programs and resources.

Media literacy also plays a crucial role. Citizens must be equipped with the skills to critically evaluate information, discern credible sources, and understand the outcomes of policy decisions. Fact-checking initiatives and transparency in reporting can contribute significantly to improving public understanding.

Government at all levels and elected officials also bear a responsibility to communicate clearly and transparently with the public. Policies and procedures should be presented in easy-to-understand language, and accessible avenues for public participation should be encouraged and facilitated.

The health of our democracy is at a turning point as we approach the 2024 election. In Washington, we will elect state officials, state and Congressional representatives, and a variety of local officials who can immediately impact our daily lives. The next seven months are imperative. Are we prepared to actively engage with our elections, government, and government officials in ways that benefit each other and our democracy?

Meredith Browand is a mother and activist who lives in Purdy.