By Crit Luallen
July 2016- It would be no surprise if a young person whose perception of public service has been formed through the lens of cable news and its 30-second sound bites was forever dissuaded from choosing a career in the public arena. So much of what we see today involves the negative attacks and divisive rhetoric that have fueled increased polarization in this nation.
But an innovative program in Lexington, Kentucky, offers an opportunity for a select group of future leaders to see public leadership in a far different and much more positive way.
The Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship is a nonprofit dedicated to educating a new generation of leaders in the essential skills of diplomacy, negotiation and conflict resolution.
Thanks to a collaborative partnership that includes The Council of State Governments, the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Kentucky, and Transylvania University, the Henry Clay Center expanded in 2016 to hold both a high school and college-level Student Congress in the same year for the first time.
The week-long summer programs gather competitively chosen students from every region of the U.S. During the week, they have the opportunity to meet with lawmakers, academics, journalists and civic leaders to discuss the practical importance of compromise and constructive engagement and dialogue to resolve conflict and competing interests in a democracy.
The Council of State Governments assists in recruiting qualified applicants from across the country for both programs. The University of Kentucky’s Martin School faculty directs the college-level curriculum, including taking student teams through a participatory case study in compromise on a major public policy issue.
The Student Congress programs are funded entirely by donations and are completely free of cost, including travel and lodging, to those students selected.
As a new board member of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, I have been inspired by the mission of the organization and the passion of its board and staff leadership.
Having served seven Kentucky governors, and held statewide office as Kentucky’s lieutenant governor and state auditor, I know the value of strong public leaders. And I am keenly interested in the future of public leadership. I have watched with dismay as increased polarization and gridlock have too often hampered our progress. But, I have also been in the room when effective compromises were reached by enlightened leaders willing to respect opposing viewpoints and find common ground.
The need has never been greater to impart the skills of statesmanship to those who will take up the torch as it is passed to their generation.
At a time when it is so easy to become discouraged about the political process, it gives me great hope to see the inspired and gifted young leaders who assemble for these Student Congress sessions.
The Henry Clay Center imparts the skills of statesmanship to bring about change in an increasingly polarized public and civic environment. It is a mission vital to our future and one that we hope will draw increasing engagement and support as we seek to build a new generation of inspired leaders.