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Teen Leaders Answer a Conference Call

Students well versed in world events join a D.C. confab and wrestle with current issues


Most American teenagers know more about the personal lives of their favorite celebrities than they do about the policies of President Bush. They watch MTV (not CNN), listen to KROQ (not NPR) and read teen magazines instead of the newspaper.

Yet there are some high school students whose interest in diplomacy extends beyond deciding which is the best party to attend on a Friday night. Well informed of world events and actively interested in the political process, about 350 of them will be learning even more at the National Young Leaders Conference that began this week in Washington, D.C.

Students like Deena Quitman--a 16-year-old at Huntington Beach High School who wants to be a lawyer, maybe even president someday--and Jeremy Blatter, a 17-year-old "general truth seeker" from Santa Barbara whose distrust of the mainstream media has led him to read Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and the Nation.

Handpicked by their teachers, students are selected for their leadership ability. This year, 37 California students are attending the 11-day conference, hosted by the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, a Washington-based nonprofit founded in 1985 by an educator and a congressional staffer who wanted to tie education into government and leadership. Cost of attending, about $2,000 per person, is paid either by the student's family or is covered by a scholarship.

Though the curriculum changes each year to reflect current events, this year, during the "If I Were President" simulation, they're responding to an international crisis involving North Korea, spy satellites, nuclear arms and the Persian Gulf. In a mock congressional session, they are debating legislation on education, homeland security and spending initiatives. And in a judicial simulation called "Testing the Constitution" they are arguing real court cases involving a school board's liability for sexual harassment between students and whether law enforcement officials violate the 4th Amendment by allowing the news media to tag along.

Students also have the opportunity to meet with senators and representatives from their area, oftentimes one on one. Last year, two students from Iowa not only met with their representative but Bono of the rock group U2 while the two discussed global debt relief.

"I want to meet people in Washington," said Natasha Spann, a breathless 15-year-old from Torrance who is participating in this year's conference. An avid news watcher, she said she knows California's representatives by sight but not by name. "I want to know firsthand what they think. Maybe someday someone will remember me and say, 'Hey, come over here.' "

So far, none of the alumni from the National Young Leaders Conference have gone on to political office, though some now work on Capitol Hill. Perhaps the program's most notable alumnus is Nick Irons, from Rockville, Md. In 1997, at age 25, he swam the length of the Mississippi River and raised $200,000 for research into multiple sclerosis.

In 2000, he rode his bicycle 10,000 miles for the same cause and raised $600,000.

"He's not a member of Congress, but maybe someday he will be," said program spokesman Brett West. "At this point he's taking on his own role as a leader, and that's what we really encourage in people."

Between the ages of 15 and 17, few of the participating students know what they want to study in college, let alone what they want to do once they're out in the real world. But they share an awareness of the problems their generation will face in the future and hope to be involved in their resolution.

What will be their greatest political challenges down the road?

According to Ashlyn Kotani, a 16-year-old from Torrance at this year's conference, it's education. "We need teachers that actually know what they're doing and more individual attention," she said.

To Gershom Gannon-O'Gara, 16, of Culver City, foreign policy is a concern. "It's all about how many enemies we make in Europe right now. We're sort of blundering around, and we're not making any friends....

"In Europe, when the next generation of politicians come out, my opinion is they're going to be fairly radical and openly opposed to the U.S."

Quitman thinks the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians will continue to be a volatile issue. "We're hoping if a Palestinian state is created and peace is reached that it'll be over, but I think that's highly idealistic. [It's] going to be an issue for a very, very long time."

Quitman is more politically involved than most other people her age. She participates in her school's Model U.N. program, a debate-type club where students argue different countries' positions.

She's also a member of her school's site council--a group of parents, teachers and students that determines where school funds should be allocated--and is vice president of her youth group.

She hopes to go to Brown University when she graduates next year and major in economics. From there, she will study law, possibly using that as a springboard to pursue a career in politics.

"I think we're going to see a female president some time in the near future," she said, "but if that female president doesn't come before my time, then who knows? Maybe it will be me."

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