An early taste of politics

Published June 4, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Ranging in age from 15 to 22, the students who gathered this week at the South Branch Library are among the group deemed least likely to vote. Only 46 percent of Florida's 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2004 presidential election, compared with a state average of 72 percent.

Organizers of the summer 2006 Leadership and Public Policy Academy are trying to change that. Last week, 15 young Floridians met for four days to get an inside look at the democratic process from campaign managers, candidates and other political practitioners. The program will continue for the next three weeks, as the students work as interns or fellows on local campaigns.

"Once you acquire new learning, you have to test it where it's applied. You don't learn to drive a car by reading a book about it,'' said Adrien Helm, one of the academy's organizers.

The students will work 10 to 40 hours per week and receive a stipend, funded through the nonprofit academy. They will meet twice weekly with dean of students Celeste Thomas, who will offer guidance and monitor their work. To prepare, the youths have been studying topics that include how political parties are organized, how campaigns are run and the roles of special interest groups in elections.

"We're learning a lot about politicians, what they do and the steps they have to go through to run for public office,'' said Sarah Ludemann, 15, who will be a sophomore at Tarpon Springs High School next year.

Ludemann said she thought the work would open opportunities through networking and gaining firsthand experience. "I know we're going to be answering phones and stuffing envelopes, but we'll also get to know people in the community," she said.

On Friday, their last seminar day, the students heard presentations from Charlie Gerdes, who is running for state House District 53, and Zett Scheinbaum, campaign manager for Liz McCallum, who is running for state House District 52. Gerdes spoke about the three main issues he is focusing on: education, economic opportunities and growth development. Scheinbaum shared her experiences as an intern on Capitol Hill and encouraged the kids to get involved.

"Not long ago, I was sitting where you are, at leadership academy," said Scheinbaum, who is in her mid 20s.

The Rev. Charles McKenzie, the academy's dean, said the program gives the students a more realistic view of politics and inspires them to become involved. "One of the first things we try to make them aware of is that public policy affects their whole lives,'' he said.

The result, organizers hope, will be a new generation of politically minded community activists. "Part of this whole program was the need to create a community of young people interested in politics who can extend into the future and be a network of support to one another,'' Helm said.

On Friday, students listed their top choices for which campaigns they hoped to work with. Emria Brown, 15, captured the spirit of political discourse. Brown wasn't going to make a final decision until she had gathered all the facts. "I don't want to choose until I've heard everybody," she said.

Tax-deductible contributions to the academy can be made through the Equality Florida Human Rights Education Project Inc., P.O. Box 13184, St. Petersburg, FL 33733. For information about the academy, call Ed or Adrien Helm at 867-5947.