Robert Baransaka is only 17 years old, but already he has gained valuable leadership experience serving as Arizona’s chief justice and governor. The YMCA youth version, that is.

Through the YMCA’s Youth and Government program, teenagers like Baransaka get to serve in leadership roles in model judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. They meet throughout the year—at their branch YMCA or at school—to discuss and debate issues, propose legislation, draft bills, participate in mock trials and issue executive orders.

In the fall, the teens take over the state capitol for a weekend to run model legislature and court sessions. As governor this year, Baransaka signed into “law” 13 bills. The previous two years he served as chief justice.

“It is truly an amazing and formative experience,” says Baransaka, a senior at Brophy College Preparatory. “Youth and Government has shaped a lot of the decisions I’ve made thus far in my life.”

After graduation, Baransaka plans to further his love for politics by majoring in political science in college and then pursue a law degree. That will prepare him for his dream job as a Congressional lobbyist.

A 70-year History of Developing Leaders

The Valley of the Sun YMCA has offered the Youth and Government program for 70 years, with the goal of creating the next generation of thoughtful, committed and active citizens. The program’s motto is that “democracy must be learned by each generation,” and its premise is that leaders are developed by doing.

One current Arizona leader who got her start at the Y is Lisa Atkins, commissioner of the Arizona State Land Department. Atkins grew up as a Y kid in Tucson and later Phoenix. The Lighthouse YMCA in Tucson was within walking distance of her home, and she took full advantage, serving as a day camp counselor, pool staffer and swim team member.

She also got involved in what was then called Model Legislature.

“I was intrigued by Model Legislature,” recalls Atkins. “Communities don’t work unless people participate in government. And this was a hands-on opportunity to learn the process of how state government operated. I certainly did not participate thinking I would ever get involved in public policy, though.”

But after being involved in Model Legislature throughout her high school years and then interning at the real Arizona Legislature during college, Atkins abandoned her plans to study genetics at MIT. Instead, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she spent more than 23 years serving as chief of staff to Congressman Bob Stump.

“I found a passion I didn’t know I had,” says Atkins. “And Model Legislature clearly was a huge contributor to that because it enabled me to learn the process at an early age. The beauty of the legislative process is that it is a partnership between elected officials and their constituents. And it’s only successful when it engages a broad array of interests.”

Fostering a Lifetime of Civic Engagement

Lisa Atkins

Courtesy of
Arizona Town Hall

Since returning to Arizona in 2002, Atkins has continued to be a leader in the public policy arena. She was executive director of the County Supervisors Association of Arizona and vice president of public policy for Greater Phoenix Leadership before being tapped by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2015 to oversee the State Land Department.

In that role, Atkins is responsible for managing over 9 million acres of land—13 percent of all land holdings in the state. That land is held in a multi-generational perpetual trust to provide revenue for the K-12 education system.

“The skill sets I learned beginning with Model Legislature are the ones I use every day when making decisions about how the State Land Department aligns interests to manage the state trust,” says Atkins. “This job gives me the opportunity to take the lessons learned in federal, state and local public policy and put it to good and practical use for a very important factor in our state’s future.”

In recognition of all her years of public service, Atkins received the 2017 Shirley Agnos Legacy Award from the Arizona Town Hall. The award is given to individuals with a record of superlative civic engagement.

“I think everything I’ve done has always had a link back to that participation in YMCA Model Legislature,” says Atkins, “and to an understanding that participation in your community is important.”


Hope for a Future of Constructive Dialogue

Today’s crop of model legislators will likely look back on their own careers one day and realize the impact of their early hands-on experience in the democratic process. Baransaka is hopeful his generation will bring about a change in at least the tone of politics.

“Through Youth and Government, I learned that our government requires lots of teamwork and cooperation,” says Baransaka. “Today’s political climate isn’t really fostering that. It’s very dog eat dog.

“I have a strong faith that my generation will change that,” adds the youth governor. “There should be more lifting up of each other and more constructive dialogue than there is now.”