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Pitman students stay civically engaged through JSA club
Pitman JSA club
Seated in a circle with a moderator in the middle, students debated topics like the age of consent, fear of police and more throughout the Junior State of America regional gathering held at Pitman High School on Saturday (Photo contributed).

As political discourse around the country continues to produce divisive rhetoric, students in Pitman High School’s Junior State of America club gathered with other local chapters over the weekend to have civil, respectful conversations about some of the nation’s most buzzworthy issues.

This is the second year PHS has had a JSA club on campus, said advisor Isaac Farhadian, which aims to promote civic engagement among high schoolers. The non-partisan, student-run organization not only helps the Pride develop leadership skills through activities like debates, but also provides students with the knowledge necessary to ensure they remain actively involved as voters post-graduation.

“I think it’s good to be educated on the political world and how it works in general, because eventually we’re all going to be adults,” JSA co-president Dylan Christopher said. “A lot of people make ‘half votes’ not understanding the full ideologies of everything, so getting started in high school and understanding it better will make it easier as you progress and get older and continue into politics.”

The PHS JSA chapter was joined by other chapters from around the area on Saturday for the Central Valley Region Chapter Con — a day full of debates, thought talks and Congressional simulations that even featured a guest appearance by Turlock Mayor Amy Bublak.

“People of all political beliefs can come together here and have safe dialogue without fear of retribution,” Farhadian said. “Every ideology under the sun is pretty much represented. If you have predominantly one ideology, there’s not a whole lot of room for debate and you won’t be able to see the other perspective. That’s the beautiful thing about this.”

Throughout the day, students debated topics like the age of consent, fear of police, political censorship on social media and other issues that might typically cause raised voices, anger and disagreements. Unlike many adults, however, the high school students responded to each other thoughtfully and with care, meeting opposing views with statements like, “You’re right, I didn’t think of that,” or, “You know what? I actually agree with that point.” Students reminded each other to remain respectful if debates began to escalate, creating a safe space where they were able to share their opinions and fully voice their concerns about the world whether they’re Republican or Democrat. This gives students who may have a differing opinion from their peers the chance to find their voice, Christopher said.

“I joined the club because I saw a lot of things on campus I didn’t like and I wanted to change it. I was hoping that my words can speak to some people,” he said. “I’m pretty outspoken and I’m Republican, but a lot of my peers — probably 99 percent of them — are either liberal or Democrat, which isn’t a bad thing, but I don’t see a lot of people going against the current and engaging in their own beliefs.”

During the PHS JSA chapter’s first year, Farhadian said he volunteered nearly 200 hours of his own time to make the club an engaging experience for students. The hard work paid off, as PHS won the Newcomer of the Year Award at the JSA State Convention — a meetup of over 700 students that happens triennially in the fall, winter and spring.

Through activities like mock protests, voter registration drives and open debate time for students who may be interested in the club, Farhadian tries to provide as many opportunities as he can for students to become or continue to be civically-engaged, he said. Most recently, the club partnered with Stanislaus State and participated in the city’s United Against Hate march, and in December, students will volunteer at the International Rescue Committee’s holiday party for refugees.

“The important thing about having organizations like this is that it gives kids the opportunity to express themselves. They may change their opinion or they may be challenged, but I always tell my kids I don’t care what position you take on something. As long as you’re able to defend it successfully using demonstrable facts, you’re good to go,” Farhadian said.