McComish out registering voters in Arizona earlier this summer.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mount Greylock Regional School senior Karen Magnusdottir McComish spent her summer learning about America and gaining an appreciation for those, like her, who one day will help lead it.
McComish, a politically active teen who helped organize her school's response to gun violence last winter, represented Massachusetts at the 72nd American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation, a program that brings together 100 of the nation's best and brightest for a week of study and debate in Washington, D.C.
"Before this program, I was hopeful for a compassionate, forward-thinking and inclusive future, but after meeting these girls and being exposed to their power and intellect, I felt like I could envision one," McComish said. "This program really redefined patriotism for me."
Patriotism is a major component of the decades-old civics program, whose alumnae include journalist Jane Pauley, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, and former Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson.
"I'm thankful for the local American Legion Auxiliary and Mount Greylock and Girls State for sending me to Girls Nation," McComish said. "It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it was only possible because of them.
"If anyone wants to help a program that helps vets and also helps empower women, they should contact their local auxiliary."
McComish shared with iBerkshires.com some of her reflections on a busy summer, which also included a trip to the Southwest to volunteer for a state Democratic Party.
Question: What was the process that got you to Girls Nation? When were you selected?
McComish: It started off at Mount Greylock. A few of us got to go to Girls State. The local [American Legion] Auxiliary unit sponsored a couple of the girls, and the American Legion sponsored a couple of the boys to go to Girls State and Boys State at the end of the school year.
It was a completely free program.
Q: And what was it like?
McComish: That was an amazing experience, one of the best experiences in my entire life. Girls came from across the state. It was a weeklong program where we learned about civic engagement and government and getting along with different leadership types.
At Girls State, we were divided into counties and towns. They're pretty much trying to replicate what a state would be like. In the towns, we had a police chief and a mayor and people serving different roles. I was a state senator.
They were trying to create an atmosphere to learn about state government.
My town, the city of Tolerance, had a vote to decide who would be interviewed to go to Girls Nation because two girls from each state go to Girls Nation.
In Massachusetts, the process was our cities elected the person who we thought should go to interviews. That was good because the decision was being made by the girls who know us best. I got elected to that and was interviewed with a bunch of Auxiliary members.
Q: And this was all out in Boston?
McComish: This was at Stonehill College on their campus.
Q: What was your reaction when you found out you were chosen for Girls Nation?
McComish: I had no idea this was going to happen. In no way did I think that going to Girls State, I'd end up at Girls Nation.
Q: And what were you able to do to get ready for the trip to Washington?
McComish: We had a meeting in the morning after we were named with an Auxiliary member, and she handed us a folder with information about Girls Nation. I didn't know anything about Girls Nation, but the packet explained everything. They were really organized.
I only spoke to my co-senator, Elizabeth, briefly, because she was in a different county. I thought it was cool because she's from eastern Mass and I'm from Western Mass. In gearing up for Girls Nation, we had to email back and forth because each state has to have a bill prepared. At Girls Nation we're supposed to be senators from our state.
Q: What was your bill?
McComish: Our bill was pretty much about reducing waste. Right away, we both knew we wanted to do an environmental bill. We did a lot of research, and it ended up being the 'Packaging and Waste Reduction Act.' It was an act to eliminate unsustainable packaging. Pretty much the point of it is to make the packaging be the minimum amount it needs to be.
Q: And did your bill come up for a vote at Girls Nation? Did it pass?
McComish: What happens is once we got to Girls Nation, we were divided into two parties, Nationalists and Federalists. It's not chosen by who is a Democrat and who is a Republican, they were completely random. We had to create a party platform ... what we want to achieve.
I ended up working on the environmental platform and presenting it at Girls Nation. I'm really into environmental law. I want to be an environmental lawyer when I grow up. It was cool to go there and meet people from around the country who are passionate about that.
One bill might take two hours to go over. I think we only got to 18, but that's still quicker than normal government.
Q: So your bill didn't come up for a vote?
McComish: We didn't get to our bill, unfortunately, but I think it would have passed. We did pass a lot of other bills.
Q: Other than the legislative work, how was the rest of the experience in Washington?
McComish: I was really, really impressed. We had a lot of great opportunities. For example, we went down to Capitol Hill, and all of us met with our senators or representatives of our senators. My co-senator and I went to Sen. Markey's office and Sen. Warren's office. We got to talk to them about what we were doing that week and in general what teens are thinking about.
Q: So you didn't have a chance to meet the senators themselves?
McComish: A lot of other people got to meet our senators. We, unfortunately, didn't. But it's OK. They're working really hard. We got to talk for 40 minutes about a lot of issues -- gun control, mental illness in schools, we talked a lot about the environment. Sen. Markey's office took our environmental platform and gave it to their environment person. They really took it seriously. That was amazing.
I mentioned Greylock Together to both of their offices and talked about how active we are in the Berkshires.
Q: Did you have a chance to go to the monuments and things like that?
McComish: We had a pass at the Capitol and went down onto the floor. We had the afternoon to explore Capitol Hill, which was amazing.
We went to the White House compound, which was very, very cool. It's amazing the Auxiliary does all this. This was only the third time in 74 years the president couldn't meet with us. He, unfortunately, had an appointment, so he couldn't meet with us. We met the vice president, who said we were going to make America great again and to work hard and pray harder.
Q: How did you find your fellow senators at Girls Nation?
McComish: The girls I met at Girls State and Girls Nation were so amazing -- the passion and open-mindedness of everyone impressed me. Those are the people I hope are in the White House of the future.
If the people I met at this program are representative of the leadership of our nation, I'm optimistic that our nation is headed to a progressive place with an emphasis on inclusion.
My roommates from Alaska and California. Just meeting everyone was so eye-opening and opened my mind to a picture of what America is like. Another thing that struck me was it didn't matter if you were Republican or Democrat. We didn't talk about that. We did talk about government and what we believe.
Everyone was super respectful. I had discussions with people with political opinions I never encountered before, but everyone was very intelligent and so open.
Q: Girls State wrapped up with the selection of the senators for Girls Nation. How does Girls Nation wrap up?
McComish: We also had election for vice president and president. they were pretty competitive. The girls there were amazing. Some had given TED Talks, the majority were state champions in speech and debate. People would get up and talk for five minutes, and it would sound like an essay. It was amazing.
I think the president and vice president we elected were from Florida and Virginia. I think it was interesting because all four of our candidates were all pretty progressive. All of our discussion were pretty open, but we ended up electing pretty progressive people. The president opened with a speech talking about how her parents are immigrants from Sudan and in Virginia she goes to a school where there are Confederate flags in the hallway. The vice president lives a half hour from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Q: I can imagine that the gun issue was very much on the minds of a group of politically aware high schoolers.
McComish: A lot of the girls there were really active. One of my really good friends spoke at the March for Our Lives event in Kentucky. A lot of people who were there were really involved that issue which was cool for me to see.
We're all staying in contact. We're going to work together in the future to work for a couple of different things. A couple of us talked about how we'll do things in our community, but with this bigger network we're hoping to have more of an impact.
Q: And then after you left Girls Nation, you went down to Arizona to campaign for U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema?
McComish: Last year, I campaigned for her. I was planning on interning [with her] again, but with Girls Nation I wasn't able to be there long enough for Sinema, which is why I volunteered instead for the Arizona Democratic Party. Working for Sinema, who at the time was a representative and only considering running for Senate, showed me the necessity of being able to finance a statewide campaign, and this summer, my work for the party unveiled the hours and energy needed to expand the base to turn a state blue.
I still worked on some of [Sinema's] things, but I did things like register voters. I did phone banking. I went canvassing, which I always wanted to do. I feel like in Arizona is an important place to do it.
It was a really good learning experience because I'd stand out in 108-degree heat trying to register people in front of the library and I'd maybe get one person, but it would be worth it for that.
Right now, it's especially essential wherever you are politically to be working for that, especially for Democrats right now. If I can stand outside in Arizona in 108-degree heat, anyone can do it in 70-degree weather here in Massachusetts.
Q: I imagine in a place like Arizona, you ran into people who were indifferent to the message you were delivering, if not even hostile, when you went out canvassing.
McComish: We had some interesting responses, but a lot of it was positive. I think people do want to make a difference. It was encouraging and it was really good to do right after Girls Nation because it brought it into the real world, going from this program that's encouraging us to go after whatever we believe.
Q: How did you end up volunteering for the candidate and later the party all the way out in Arizona?
McComish: My grandparents live in Arizona. I was on vacation visiting them last year.
Massachusetts is really important, but Massachusetts is already blue. Arizona is a different political climate, and I wanted to learn more about it. I just really wanted to find out what it was like and try to make a difference in a state that's more purple than blue.
I like to talk to people about politics from different parts of the country. Where you grew up forms your ideas and ideals. It's interesting to have conversations with people from across the country. At Girls Nation, I was with people with completely different ideas and completely different upbringings.
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