Nearly 200 high school students pack into a small room to sing karaoke to songs from “High School Musical” and Taylor Swift. From the energy, fun and camaraderie generated, one could never guess that these students fiercely debated heavy topics like feminism, classism and racism just the morning before.
Junior State of America (JSA) provides students with a unique blend of serious discussion of political issues and having a good time, said junior and next year’s JSA Northern California Governor Kate Gross-Whitaker.
Although it is a club at Piedmont High School, JSA is a nationwide organization. The PHS club belongs to the Northern California state of JSA.
“[JSA is a] BiPartisan, non-profit organization that’s focused on promoting civics engagement specifically throughout debate,” Gross-Whitaker said.
Sophomore and next year’s co-president Anna Fehr said that the size of the region adds to the political diversity in discussion.
“When we go to conventions there are over 400 kids [there]. [These kids] are not just from the Bay Area, they are from all over and might not think the same way,” Fehr said.
History teacher and JSA advisor Mark Cowherd also said that the diversity of the conventions is far greater than that of just PHS.
“There’s a fair range of the political spectrum at these meetings,” Cowherd said. “Kids come from way northern California or the Central Coast. So you’ve got
conservatives, liberals, libertarians. They’re interacting with more of a spectrum than at the high school.”
Cowherd said that discussions with people with different views is very important to developing ones own opinion.
“Exposure to other ideas and exposure to conflicting ideas is important,” Cowherd said. “To think why you really think that way. Exposure to other ideas is always good.”
Gross-Whitaker said that in JSA, the state has about 400 to 500 students.
The state hosts three conventions each year, where students can either sign up to be part of the discussion, or be part of the audience, which can also participate in discussion. There is also a party the Saturday night of the weekend convention.
Fehr said one aspect of JSA that helps to foster this discussion is its non-competitive format.
“It’s completely non-competitive, you’re not trying to win anything, you’re just trying to have honest conversations with people,” Fehr said.
Fehr said that one such instance of meaningful discussion for Fehr was a debate about which was more of an issue: racism or classism.
“[In Piedmont] we focus a lot more on racism than on classism,” Fehr said. “I went in thinking pretty purely that racism was the bigger issues. And when I went in and hear about white people on welfare and their experiences and that was really enlightening because that’s not something you hear about much in Piedmont.”
Gross-Whitaker, who had formerly served as the president of the club and was the sole remaining member her sophomore year, was elected as Governor of the Northern California state for next year, which is the highest position possible in the state.
“[Holding leadership in JSA has] definitely been one of the most amazing things I’ve done in high school,” Gross-Whitaker said. “It is a lot of work, but it’s also allowed me to get really close with all different students from San Luis Obispo to up in Northern California.”