The Great Experiment

Good evening. It’s been a bit crazy around here. The first day is usually like this. It starts around 7:00am and ends around midnight. It’s so long because there’s so much to do. From the minute delegates hit the pavement here at American Legion Jersey Boys State, there’s somewhere to be, something to learn, or some decision to make. It’s quite the crash course.

Delegates, upon arrival, immediately register for Boys State, find where they’re going to be staying for the week, and receive their ALJBS shirts. Then, they take their belongings to their room, set up their room, say goodbye to relatives and friends, and begin to review the materials for a 10:00am meeting with their new “city.”

Each city is a group of (usually) about sixty delegates and five counselors. They are randomly created. With rare exceptions, no one knows who will be in their city when they arrive at ALJBS. The 10:00am meeting is the first time the new statesmen meet each other and discover who they will be living and working with for the next week.

Naturally, there are introductions. Most introductions fall into a rhythm. A statesman stands up. Hi, I’m My Name, I’m from Town, I’m the president of my student council, I play football and basketball, I’m in the National Honor Society, and I want to do the most important things this week. He sits. Another rises. Hi, I’m My Name…

There are exceptions, though. I remember a statesman who said, “Yeah, hi guys, I’m My Name, and I just found out I was going to be here on Friday. They automatically send the president of our student council to Boys or Girls State each year. There was only one person running for president, but she made this campaign video where she said she didn’t need anyone’s votes since she was running unopposed. A bunch of my friends started a write-in campaign for me and I won. I’m a D-student, I play guitar, and I don’t really know anything about this program so…yeah.” The young man was honest, just like the rest of his fellow citizens, but he had a unique story.

Introductions continue until all statesmen have given their stories, whether high achievers or fortunate guitarists. The stories are as diverse as the hometowns of the statesmen. Each statesman has their own style, which they are bringing into their new tribe.

And so begins the grand social experiment that is American Legion Jersey Boys State. We gather a diverse group of talented individuals, throw them together in groups, and give them each a set of problems to solve. What happens?

That remains to be seen. As Bruce Tuckman’s famous group development model notes, “Performing” doesn’t occur until the end. We’re in the “Forming” phase. The teams are getting to know each other and (later in the day) will start reviewing the problems and deciding how to address them.

But that’s half a day away from where they are at this point. They’re still introducing themselves to each other. And as each statesman tells his story to the other members of his city, some of the similarities between his story and their stories become evident. All of the statesmen are from New Jersey. All of them have just completed the same year of school. All of them share similar interests with other members of the city.

And all of them are wearing the same shirt.

This detail might seem insignificant. Do not be fooled. It is deeply important. It is fundamental to American Legion Jersey Boys State.

ALJBS cherishes and goes out of its way to exemplify equal opportunity. Each statesman wears the same shirt as every other statesman. They get the same amount of Boys State Bucks to use in their political campaigns as everyone else. No legal tender is allowed. Neither are pre-made campaign materials. The two political parties that these statesman are a part of are even in number. Each city is randomly created, not generated by geography or registration order. Each city and county gets its own unique hypothetical set of problems to solve at the same time as everyone else. These problems must be solved in the same amount of time. There is only one chance at this; no one gets to come back with the benefit of experience. There are no advantages. It is as random and fair a system as we can make.

Into this system walk a thousand young men each year. Each of them brings their own unique personality and experiences into it. Each of them become part of the whole, then part of a team, then begins to realize what it means to be an individual within a group. This realization will continue throughout the week, not just in the meetings and assemblies but also in the chatter on the walks to meetings and assemblies. Each city will become its own unit, made up of many members. So too will American Legion Jersey Boys State.

And, frankly, it will not be a process that finishes because this process never finishes. Who among us can say they know exactly how they, the individual, fit as part of a group at any given time? Who feels perfectly comfortable in their job? These situations are always changing, just as we change.

There is no greater period of change in a person’s life than the 13–25 window. This is where we find our footings as individuals and in the world. Boys State is a microcosm of the world; thus, it is a time where its citizens become their own persons and parts of the State.

This is the result of the great experiment: the people change. It is a blunt but universal truth. How will this year’s group change? Only time will tell. Past results have been pretty good. This year’s results look to be the same.

Out of the many, one.
In the one, many.
All starting, at the same level.
All ending, having changed.