Lessons of Washington Week: The Importance of Civility

The student delegates to the United States Senate Youth Program (USSYP) are selected based on their demonstrated leadership in elected or appointed positions; their knowledge of public affairs, current events, politics and history; their passion for serving their communities, and their overall academic success.  Two students from each state, D.C. and the Department of Defense Education Activity overseas come together for the program each year, representing vast geographical and ideological diversity. The USSYP provides an unparalleled opportunity for the students to learn the many ways they can apply their talents to careers in public service. Throughout Washington Week, our nation’s foremost leaders spend time with the delegates sharing their lessons learned, their strongest convictions and sage advice on how to lead a fulfilling, principled and successful life in service to our country.

In the weeks following Washington Week, USSYP delegates are asked to contemplate upon and distill what they have gleaned from these leaders (and one another) and share their thoughts in essays of reflection, all of which are posted to the USSYP website. This year, an overarching theme appeared, so powerful and so well-articulated that we felt compelled to share it with our wider USSYP family as a blog post. We hope that you are as moved and inspired by our delegates’ thoughts on the theme of civility as we have been.

To read all essays, please visit 2018 Delegate Essays


Excerpts from 2018 USSYP Delegate Essays


Congressman John Lewis of Georgia addressing the USSYP delegates during Washington Week 2018.

An opposing view is not an offending view, and this idea was by far the most memorable item from my time at Washington Week. If I had to choose one theme that was present in every speaker’s talk, from Congressman John Lewis to Senator Tim Scott or Justice Gorsuch, it was that civility and communication are elements of democracy that are too precious to be thrown to the wind.

Andrew Mangan, NY – 2018

Justice Gorsuch, in his discussion of the importance of political discourse, left us with a phrase that I will never forget: “Just because you disagree doesn’t mean you need to be disagreeable.” All too often we get so caught up in our political ideologies and debates that we forget one of the most basic tenants of our society: Treat others how you would like to be treated. We forget that the person on the other side of the aisle cares just as much about the success of our country as we ourselves do.

Connor Solimano, VT – 2018




USSYP 2018 Co-Chair Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina speaking to delegates.

In a time seemingly more polarized than past decades, one of the most surprising, yet refreshing messages of Washington Week was that of compromise and civility. Early in the week, Senator Tim Scott remarked that, “Too many people fixate on what we don’t have in common.” He then challenged us to search for common ground despite a difference in values, as compromise serves as a way to preserve hope in toxic environments. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch echoed this sentiment by reminding us, “You will never regret being kind.”

Grace Dragna, LA – 2018


USSYP Alumnus and Former Chief Judge Robert Henry speaks with USSYP delegates after his address.

Judge Henry’s powerful messages on timeless civility resonated with all of us as we continued through our week. Civility resonated, albeit in deafening silence, as Justice Gorsuch stood before us in the Supreme Courtroom. It resonated across our dinner tables where opinions from opposite sides of the nation came together in bipartisan coffee sips and unanimous bread bites. Civility resonated in each step we took through the halls of the White House. Truly, everyone sees things differently. When one is exposed to some of the nation’s best and brightest civic minds it creates a massive pool of intellect and perspective where no one’s toes touch the bottom.

Kaitlyn Yoo, AZ – 2018

Quickly emerging as an overarching theme in the discussions and speeches of nearly every speaker — ranging from Congressman John Lewis to Justice Neil Gorsuch — was the value of civility in government and politics.  I had the opportunity to ask Senator Tim Scott to speak to the importance of pluralism and bipartisanship while working in the Senate, to which he responded, “We all agree on 95% of things, but just have different ways of getting there.  We fixate too much on our disagreements, rather than our agreements.”

Nicole Fintel, NE – 2018


A word that I believe defines the week is civility. Just listening to my fellow delegates and meeting various government officials during the week humanized them and made me feel that these positions are within my reach. Even though we came from very different places, we managed to overcome our differences and listen to each other. That is the most important message: to listen and learn from those around you, even if you may disagree with them. The more that you know about someone, the more you can relate and understand why they have their political position. Personal contact with people from vastly different backgrounds, which my USSYP experience provided, showed me the importance of stepping back from the increasingly negative political atmosphere of the internet and media and instead getting to know the person behind the political position or government official.

Adah Barenburg, DODEA – 2018


I see a path forward that restores civility to politics. I see a path forward where leaders are actively working with one another across political lines to develop real solutions. This is a path that certainly won’t be paved overnight, but I am confident that it is on the horizon and waiting for the leaders of the next generation to begin the work ahead.

Jaron Caffrey, KS – 2018


Colorado delegates Jacob Fisher and Aaron Lombardi speak with USSYP alumnus Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado (R), and fellow Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (D).


And as important as it is to converse with those with whom we disagree, Senator Tim Scott reminded me that “the most important conversation you will ever hear is between you and you.” It’s our internal dialogue that dictates our choices and the ways in which we approach external dialogue. Democracy starts and ends with the individual mind; USSYP taught me to use mine more consciously.

Mackenzie Hawkins, CA – 2018


© Photos by Erin Lubin and Jakub Mosur