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These boys were selected as the 2014 Legislative Floor Leaders for 2014 Maryland Boys State.

Each June, a free, week-long residential camp run by the American Legion gathers young men from around the state of Maryland for an exercise in civics in which they simulate the processes of democratic governance. While the program, known as Boys State, has some famous alumni, a lack of greater awareness about the program has limited its ability to attract potential participants from inner city areas like Baltimore.Boys State, held this year on the campus of McDaniel College, takes in young men from around the state who have completed their junior year of high school and divides them into groups, referred to as cities. For the first 24 hours, the counselors, all of whom are members of the American Legion and most of whom are themselves military veterans, give all the commands and make all the rules.

Boys State, however, is not your standard drill camp for boys considering a career in the military. Discipline is not the principal aim of these first 24 hours; rather, the participants are subjected to a set of rules in which they had no say as a simulation of the transition from more autocratic forms of government to democratic ones.

Over the course of the second day, participants meet with their fellow citizens and draw up charters for their city government, elect officials, and make their own rules and laws. After forming their own city governments, the boys also elect representatives to a state legislature, which will vote on laws based on the recommendations of committees who have already debated the relevant bills and in which all the boys participate.

Two of the participants in the camp will be elected senators and sent to another week-long program that generally runs towards the end of July and takes place in Washington D.C. The only cost to the young men is transportation to the camp. However, according to Russell Myers, department adjutant for Maryland Boys State and the chief administrator of this year’s camp, “If they can’t afford to get here, the Legion post arranges for them to get a ride here.”

The only other cost associated with the camp is the requirement that participants bring a roll of quarters. The purpose of the quarters is to fill the city coffers once a tax is levied in order for each city to provide important services to its citizenry, in this case laundry. “It’s a way to show that the essential services in a city don’t just show up, there’s a way that they happen,” said Myers who took the AFRO on a tour of the camp.

While there are certainly echoes of the counselors’ military backgrounds – for example, there are color guards and the accommodations in which the boys stay are referred to as barracks – the emphasis is not on military service but on the inner workings of democratic governance. “We’re trying to make citizens and to continue on with our form of government,” said Ronald Holcombe, a camp counselor, and member of the Federal Post No. 19 of the American Legion in Baltimore City.

Holcombe has worked to increase participation by boys from the Baltimore City area but has found recruitment difficult. As part of his efforts, he visits high schools, speaks with guidance counselors about the program so that they can inform students they think might be interested, as well as sends mailers. The response, Holcombe told the AFRO has been little to none. This year, only one person from Baltimore City participated, while another was accepted but never showed. “It’s a hard task trying to get students from the high schools from the inner city.”

Myers admits that, while some very famous persons have come through the Boys State program, including former President Bill Clinton, and NBA stars Michael Jordan and Thurl Bailey, the American Legion could do a better job of advertising programs such as Boys State.

For Ayobami Afolabi, one of the nine boys elected a legislative floor leader at this year’s camp and whose family hails from Nigeria, Boys State has served to help him see his own potential as he heads into his final year of high school and the decisions about one’s future that inevitably coincide with it. “As soon as the first day went by, I felt like everyone here was like a family. They helped me to know who I was and what I was capable of. I helped them out, we all helped each other and it’s just been a really great experience,” said Afolabi.

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO