Local students are finding leadership roles within with the Junior State of America organization. Courtesy photos.

Since its founding in 1934, Junior State of America has sought to help students build leadership skills, learn civil debate, and strengthen their community engagement through volunteering and activism.

Now — in the midst of a pandemic and social change — young leaders like Santa Monica High School’s Lilly Chertock, who was elected to serve as Governor of her state this year, must reimagine the programs and events that have helped many scholars find their voice and path to success.

More than 500,000 students have graduated high school as more active, informed members of their community as a result of their participation in JSA, according to Chertock, who recently said the organization was created by and for young people who are interested in what happens around them, whether that be politics or how to best contribute to their community.

“The JSA chapter at our school runs like a club, and I have to say I really was never interested in going into politics until I found the chapter,” Chertock said. “I originally wanted to be an orthodontist,” but a club rush at the beginning of high school changed everything for her.

“I’m interested in debate and the JSA poster had the word ‘debate’ on it. I went to my first meeting the next week, and I couldn’t stop coming,” Chertock said. “There were so many opportunities to get involved because it’s a student run organization, so I started doing everything that was available to me. And because I was so passionate about the work, it was easy to just devote myself to the tasks.”

After serving on the organization’s cabinet, Chertock was named a director of fundraising before she decided to run for governor in the most recent election.

The national organization is divided into ten states, and Southern California comprises its own because it houses the largest population of any other region, according to Chertock.

“I believe there are over 80 schools or chapters in Southern California, and in a non-Covid world we would have many in-person events,” she said. “We have times when a school will host an event and people will come for the day and then drive themselves home, but we also have overnight conventions three times a year. And the main program of JSA is having debates on political issues.”

“We call them soft talks, “ Chertock added as she described the format of the free-forum discussions. “And because we’re in Southern California, we have people from all over so some are more conservative and members get really excited by the fact that they get to talk to people with different beliefs. And there have been so many times when people walk into a debate, thinking one way and then they leave with a totally different perspective on an issue and that’s really the power of JSA.”

Every chapter is dedicated to having a space for civil discourse, “because we want to really combat the polarization that has occurred in our government and political climate,” Chertock said. “High school students don’t always feel like adults or that their voices are heard the way that adults’ are. But then students are expected to vote when they turn 18, so JSA tries to prepare us for that shift and show us that our vote and voice can influence our country and the world. It’s all about empowerment and making people feel like they can become activists for what they believe in.”

And while Chertock and her peers are unsure what events will look like in the next year, she said her peers are already working on ways to hold more online discussions like they have done throughout the pandemic.

“We will surely have a lot of online discussions with schools because those are amazing,” Chertock said. “And I feel like that’s what matters — the fact that we’re getting together, having debates and holding discussions with each other — because that’s the benefit of the entire experience.”

Any student interested in joining the Samohi JSA chapter or starting their own on another campus can email lchertock@jsa.org for more information.