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Reflections on ALJBS

Baird Johnson


I entered American Legion Jersey Boys State (ALJBS) through a side door.  I am a New Yorker reared by southern parents.  Boys State isn’t something any of my friends or classmates are aware of.  However, my parents are familiar with the program and when my former Assistant Scoutmaster mentioned that I should apply, they wholeheartedly agreed.  I “googled,” and everything I read about Boys State seemed like a wonderful way to spend a week of my summer vacation.  So, I set out to find an American Legion Post to sponsor me and what I found was my enthusiasm for attending didn’t seem to be matched on the other end of the phone.  I left messages, sent emails and got a name or two – but it became clear rather quickly this wasn’t going as well as I hoped.  I reached out to a friend in Scouting, Ethan Draddy (who happens to be the Scout Executive and CEO, Boy Scouts of America Greater New Yorker Council) and almost immediately received an enthusiastic email connecting me with David Bagatelle.  Mr. Bagatelle was unmatched in his passion for the program.  As it turned out, he and Mr. Draddy were working together on a pilot program to allow NYC Scouts to attend ALJBS – due in large part to the New York State Program concentrating its recruiting efforts outside of the city.  I consider myself extremely lucky to have been given this opportunity.  Although I wasn’t sponsored by a specific American Legion Post, I was able to attend Boys State free of charge due to a most generous sponsorship arranged by Mr. Bagatelle for all of the NYC Scouts.  Yet, the week wasn’t without challenges.  First, New York City public schools were still in session and I had two mandatory Regents Exams scheduled during that time.  It wasn’t easy to go back and forth, but it wasn’t insurmountable either.  Second, the time I missed at Boys State did hurt me in my pursuit of becoming a Supreme Court Judge.  Third, I entered the program expecting some positions were off limits to me because I wasn’t from New Jersey.  I think a Governor or Senator who hails from the Empire State would have been quite scandalous.  I’m pleased to say, that while I was the only New Yorker in Grant City (#17), I was completely accepted by all of my fellow delegates.


One of the main reasons I wanted to attend Boys State is because I intend to spend my adult life and career involved in civic issues.  ALJBS afforded me the opportunity to experience a real-world exercise in participatory democracy.  After obtaining my undergraduate degrees in History and Political Science, I will most likely attend law school.  My interests lie in Public Advocacy, History, Government, Social Services, Politics, Law…


One of the things I took home from ALJBS is how a young person can have an immediate effect.  One of the speakers, Freeholder Kenneth Armwood (ALJBS ‘91), shared that he became a member of the School Board at nineteen years of age and promptly fired his former high school principal.  That’s rather immediate.  It also illustrates that young people don’t always have to think in macro terms such as global warming or world peace but helps us understand that we can accomplish tangible results in our neighborhoods, towns and counties.  Sadly, my generation and the one preceding it don’t seem to believe such power is available to them; they appear to be taking democracy for granted.  We have forgotten that it was not long ago when America was one of the world’s only successful democratic nations, or that the world required global conflict to keep the ideals of democracy alive.  Democratic government only works when people participate.  Voter apathy is a real and serious threat to our democracy.  Many have forgotten democracies don’t build walls, they tear them down.  My generation has to participate.  We have to debate.  We have to cooperate.  We have to lead.  No longer can America’s youth stay home because they are too busy or because they are disengaged.  We must be ready to bear the mantle of democracy.  I realize that not all of the delegates of ALJBS will seek a life in politics or service.  I also realize that each and every one of us will be touched in some way and will have the ability – and the requirement – to participate in public discourse.


The rise of ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism is a serious threat.  Poland, a cornerstone of post-Cold War democracy has fallen into darkness.  The Law and Justice Party has attacked the separation of powers and personal liberties.  Turkey, a once promising nation is now under the control of an absolute dictator.  Around the globe far right terrorist groups are emerging, preaching the doctrine of white nationalism and supremacy and threatening free and cooperative society.  On the micro level, I work against these forces of regression by spreading information and combating the flow of misinformation.  I explain basic economic policy and proclaim the value of a connected global society.  Much more needs to be done.  A significant portion of the burden falls squarely on the shoulders of corporations.  Businesses, especially those involved in the internet and social media, must police their sites for rhetoric meant to incentivize violence.  As I and my ALJBS counterparts go into the workforce, regardless of our majors or career aspirations, we can bring with us the spirit of cooperation and the heartfelt belief that the future of our planet is on our shoulders and that we are indeed very capable of managing what lies ahead by using all of the things we learned during our time at Rider University.


On a more personal note, prior to arriving at ALJBS I wasn’t well versed in military opportunities.  While I enjoyed learning about the Service Academies, I don’t believe I will choose that route for my college experience.  I can and will say that I have great respect for the men and women who do attend, and if our nation does engage in a major physical conflict, I do see myself enlisting.  Earlier I mentioned I was able to attend ALJBS free of charge.  The truth of the matter is, nothing is free.  We owe a tremendous debt to all who have served our country and I owe a debt to the men and women of the American Legion who helped make Boys State a reality for me.  While I can’t say with certainty where I will be, or what I will be doing ten or twenty years from now, I do know that in December of 2019 I will be speaking to a group of NYC Scouts sharing my experiences and encouraging them to take advantage of the joint ALJBS/GNYC program and it is highly likely that in the summer of 2021 I will be back at Rider University and ALJBS as a staff member.


In closing, as Senator Menendez (ALJBS ‘71) spoke during our final assembly, he casually mentioned that during his time at Boys State he wasn’t elected the Governor or a Senator.  He was simply, “a judge.”  I am a municipal judge.  The delegate sitting next to me, someone who I didn’t know six days earlier and had now become a friend, leaned over and whispered, “your future.”  In five days, two strangers came together.  We got to know each other.  We competed against each other.  We worked on behalf of each other.  We rooted for each other.  We consoled each other.  We dreamed with each other.  Politics aside, if we all simply carry that spirit with us — Boys State truly will change lives.