I’d never heard the term until I came to Boys State. “From the farm country of Cumberland County,” said Director Bagatelle in his opening remarks, “to the bedroom communities of Camden and Bergen Counties…”
I grew up in Camden County, but I’d never heard it referred to like that. People traveled a few miles for work, but that wasn’t what they talked about. They talked about their homes and the surrounding suburbs, all variations on themes. That was what they cared about. “Bedroom communities,” by contrast, had a distinct feel that I wasn’t used to.
But what is a community? It is a wonderfully malleable word, slapped onto the end of a dizzying variety of phrases. It shows up in TV show titles, official statements, descriptions of home, college distinctions, special interest groups, and more. Appropriately, it has a small range of definitions, each of which reveal a different part of Boys State.
1. Community is a group of people living in the same place.
Each Boys State city is a community. A city is a group of roughly fifty statesmen and staff living in the same wing of the same dormitory. Your sons and friends became part of a city when they registered here at Boys State. They’ll be part of that city for the rest of their Boys State experience. They’ll live, eat, sleep, debate, vote, compete, cheer, and rejoice together. They have a distinct area. Their wing is theirs, and so is their meeting room. They chose the basic structure they want for their group yesterday. Today, they’ll choose some of their own to run that structure.
For the rest of the week, all about these cities will become comfortable like a well-worn shoe. it is theirs. They own it by virtue of being in it. They are eighteen separate communities.
2. Community is the place where people live
These cities mimic the real thing but cannot replace it. We all come to Boys State shaped by where we grew up. From the farm country of Cumberland County to the bedroom communities of Camden and Bergen Counties, from our great shore towns to our large cities like Patterson, Jersey City, Camden, Atlantic City, and Warren, each place a statesman calls home has influenced his personality.
The Boys State cities are formed randomly, mixing together people from every New Jersey county. If you knew someone from high school who was going to Boys State, you’re probably not going to see them this week. We make an effort to put people into contact with others they haven’t known.
It’s here that we see the unique talents that each person brings to their city. Take someone out of their city and into a new setting and you get to see some of what they can do and who they are. People will take and fill roles in their cities. The politicians will pass legislation and run the city. The athletes will compete for the county’s score. The administrators will perform their duties in the city. The band members will move the city to dance. (Trust us: the Wednesday night assembly is a celebration.) All these people get to show who they are at this moment, how they’ve been shaped, and what they’ve learned from their hometown.
3. Community is a group of people with common interests
The city becomes intensely concerned about their own scenario. You know how your vacations are always more interesting to you than they are to the people you’re describing them to? Cities at Boys State deal with that on a daily basis. After they are split into identical units, they are given unique situations. Each city has its own issues to solve. Each year, we see different cities choose a different form of city government to address similar issues—an interesting blend of our second and third definitions of community. Each city will spend the week immersed in their own issues. They will debate them, create legislation to solve them, and hold court sessions to address transgressions of their laws. The particulars of all this will not matter much to people from other cities. They have their own issues. But to that city, the issues are all they focus on. They live it.
4. Community is a group that forms a distinct part of society
ALJBS is one large body, together. Despite the focus of each city and the uniqueness of each statesmen, the program is a whole unit. This collection of statesmen and staff will go through the 2019 American Legion Jersey Boys State program together. We’ll deal with the rain—we’re fine, thank you, and windbreaker sales in the Boys State Store were great today—experience the seminars, break bread, and graduate together. When we leave, we will have this thing in common.
And after we leave, we will have this thing in common too.
One of the great joys of being involved in the Boys State program is the opportunity to catch up with other staff members each year. When we reconnect, we meet as friends, despite not having seen each other for years. We’ve gone through this together. We’ve loved this program together. Whenever we meet, we have this shared experience in common. That goes for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, from the staff to the statesmen. By the end of the week, all of us will be part of the American Legion Jersey Boys State community. This body, this program, this experience—it is us, and we are it. We are the ALJBS community.
One of our goals this week is to build that community. It is a community forged out of hard work towards a common purpose of encouraging democracy to flourish by leading others through it. From this community, others will be blessed as we take these lessons home—not just to share, but especially to share among our communities there.
Today, each city will elect city officials. Those will be the community leaders who organize the city throughout the week. Tonight, they’ll start to repeat this process at a county level. Each pair of cities will learn to think about how to organize as a county. A new community forms. A new facet is made. We can’t wait to see the end result. They’ll be gems. And we’ll all get to enjoy them together.