Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mr. Lemoine Goes to Baton Rouge

... or Observations from a State Capitol.

Today I had the fairly unique opportunity to meet with and speak to several state legislators as one of the volunteers assisting with the Louisiana FFA Association's Capitol Day program.  For those not in the know, FFA is an association ('club' would be the un-dignified and not quite appropriate title) of high-school students with interest in agriculture, agribusiness, civic improvement, and leadership.  As the president of the state's alumni chapter (a position I was elected to unanimously, excepting only my own vote against myself), I was honored to be part of the program, work with the students, and address several members of the Louisiana Legislature regarding the importance of vocational education and sustainable agriculture.

And I learned quite a bit from it.

For instance, although I haven't been inside the State Capitol since 1995, I'm pretty sure I would have remembered all of those naked people painted on the walls of the building's foyer.  Definitely classy in a French Renaissance kind of way, but still an awful lot of nakedness.  I wonder if the murals are new, or if I was just too busy in 1995 to notice?  When I accidentally wondered this aloud, the friendly receptionists just giggled. As they were old enough to be my grandmothers, I found that odd somehow.

My little group of high school students was escorted downstairs to a set of caucus offices, which sounds a lot more impressive than it is in real life, where we were met by the chairman of the house agricultural committee, Andy Anders.  Mr. Anders came across as a genial fellow, an old-school Southern Democrat who said he was much more comfortable at home on his farm than in the chambers of the Legislature. Although I distrust all politicians by general rule, I found myself warming to him, especially in the way he took my little group of high school students so seriously.  I've seen government leaders deal with high school students before, and they generally treat them even worse than they treat the general public: patronizing, self-important, and imperious.

On the contrary, Mr. Anders impressed me a great deal by talking to this group of high school students not just as respected constituents, but as equals.  He blew me away. He discussed an animal euthanization bill coming up for discussion in the legislature, and asked my group of high school students where they would stand on it and what talking points they'd use.  One of the students, a very bright lady with some veterinary experience, had some clear thoughts on the matter, a stand and solid rationalization.  And Mr. Anders took that stand, and listened to her points, and used them on the floor of the legislature, because he thought they made sense.

I know nothing of this man except what I've reported thus far... but I like him a lot.  I couldn't help thinking that this is the kind of leader we need more of.  I hear a lot of noise in the business press that leaders (1) should always have a definite plan, (2) should pretend to be confident even when they're not, and about how  (3) a bad decision is better than no decision at all. I've never bought into this line of thought, and I plan to do a detailed study on it after I receive my doctorate. In my mind, to contradict the three ideas I just mentioned, (1) leaders should have a definite plan at all times except when they're busy creating the best plan, (2) leaders should be confident in their decisions because they've researched them, asked questions, and reviewed the appropriate data, and (3) no decision is always better than a bad decision, so long as the period without a decision is caused by the research necessary to make the best decision.

Did that make sense?  Anyway, I digress... I liked this guy.

Later we ended up in the Education subcommittee room, where a debate raged on whether or not to require a 2.0 GPA of all students before they could join extracurricular and athletic activities.  This is already a requirement for athletics due to the state athletic association, but the bill would make it state law and add clubs like Band, Cheerleading, FBLA, and FFA to the list.  As I rolled it over in my mind, I originally thought it was a good idea; I mean, heck, what's wrong with putting academics first?  But as I continued to think about it, I thought back to all of my friends who'd had bad grades in high school, joined FFA, and became motivated to improve their GPA.  I thought back to all the people I'd met who were on the verge of quitting school altogether when they joined these clubs and associations, and how their membership (and their great teachers) motivated them to stay in school. And I thought of the research my wife had recently shown me, indicating clearly that career and technical education and associations improved graduation rates.

The committee seemed to be split on the bill, so I urged the group of FFA students to send a representative up to talk to the committee about it.  Unfortunately, the students were understandably nervous... so I gave it a shot myself. I don't even remember what I said, as I was going in completely unprepared and speaking in front of a very intimidating set of microphones, bald men, and cameras.  But since the final vote was 11 to 4 to kill the bill, I guess I must have done okay.

Of course, I might have been helped by the bill's sponsor, who spoke just before and after me and gave a speech about breastfeeding.

Let me repeat that: this state legislator, in an attempt to pass a bill regarding extracurricular activities, gave a speech about the merits of breastfeeding.

I love my elected officials.

I had another opportunity later to present remarks to several legislators, policy-makers, and the ag commissioner, which was pretty cool.  It was a humbling opportunity to talk about just how important vocational education is, how much the students in organizations like FBLA, FCCLA, DECA, and FFA really contribute to communities and states, and how important funding and support really is to the fabric of Louisiana society.  And I got to tell jokes about Taylor Swift and Wal-Mart, too... it was a good time (I meant to throw in a Kenny Chesney riff too, but I was on a roll and completely forgot).  Most of the lawmakers came up to me afterward and asked me when I was running for office, implying that they'd rather I didn't run against them.  I think that was a compliment.
All in all, the day was a big success... the FFA kids were every bit as amazing as I expected them to be, and then some.  It's amazing the difference an organization like FFA can have on a young person's life... how polished and confident it makes them, what great speakers they become. I'd like to think I'm a living example of it, but I know I'm not all that impressive... but I can at least say that a lot of who I am, I do truly owe to the FFA.  If I had half the polish and professionalism these FFA officers do, back when I was in high school... wow.

I'm going to really miss being involved with these guys after I move to Atlanta to start my doctorate.

1 comment:

  1. Pondering what I fear most....Jim talking to our Legislators, Jim moving to atlanta or the mere mentioning of Kenny Chesney.

    Any hew.....Job well done today sir, if those kids are as smart as you say they are, they will miss you as a mentor as well.