We the People state champion crowned at MSU Law

By Jake Jenkins

Nearly 200 civic-minded high school students debated complex constitutional questions recently at MSU Law, competing in the state finals of We the People, an educational program of the Michigan Center for Civic Education (MCCE).

The students, from five high schools across the state, spent the day in mock congressional hearings debating issues such as “What rights does the Bill of Rights protect?” and “How have the values and principles embodied in the constitution shaped American institutions and practices?”

National-based judges, attorneys and MSU Law students volunteered to evaluate the students’ oral arguments.

The winning school, East Kentwood High School of Kentwood, was named statewide champion and will compete in the national competition in Washington, D.C., in April.

Carrie Feeheley, assistant dean of admissions at MSU Law, said hosting the program is important for the College of Law to show its support to students considering law school.

“We open our doors to all students who want to learn more about becoming lawyers,” Feeley said. “Whether students are first-generation, from underserved communities or have never thought about the field of law, we are here for them.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Welch applauded the students for being “deep Constitutional thinkers” and encouraged them to remain engaged in civic discourse and practice debating all points of view.

“It’s important to know how to talk to one another and disagree,” she said in her keynote address. “Practice switching sides. Use empathy. It takes work to avoid confirmation bias, to only listen to those you agree with. But it’s important to have civility and respect each other’s opinions.”

The MCCE has directed the We the People in Michigan since 1987 as a special program to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The primary goal is to promote civic competence, an appreciation of the Constitution, and an understanding of societal issues among elementary and secondary students.

“Students need opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations, especially ones that engage multiple perspectives and controversy,” said Ellen Zwarensteyn, Executive Director of MCCE.

“It’s difficult to teach this concept from textbook at times, so getting students to engage and simulate is an important way to empower them and their learning.”

Students from East Grand Rapids, East Kentwood, Howell, Marian and Richmond were all featured in the state finals.

“Putting all the work in to study the Constitution, being here at the finals feels like it’s paid off,” said Connor Bergeon, junior from Richmond High School. “The encouragement from my teacher was great and helped my participation in this program.”

Some students entered this program to gain an in-depth knowledge of the three branches of American government at the local, state, and federal levels – and how they can be a benefit to their communities.

“I wanted to learn more about America and our history,” said David Lowry, senior from East Grand Rapids High School. “I wanted to know how to change things and what needs to be changed in order to improve our society.”

MSU Law first-year student Matthew Swazer also had an opportunity to volunteer his time to be a part of this event as a facilitator.

“I look into the program and deemed it was something that is important in civic education,” said Swazer. “I decided I wanted to get involved and learn more about the program. These students have been doing an incredible job and is something I would want to be a part of in the future.”

In addition to East Kentwood High School, other winners included East Grand Rapids High School, second place; Richmond High School, third place; and Marion Blue High School of Bloomfield Hills, honorable mention.