Watching Government in Action

Two women standing in front of a column, smiling. Teens seated outside listening to a woman presenting. Teens standing beside a woman looking at a large book. Four boys listening intently.
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Program teaches teens about governance

Story by Leah Barbour • Photos by Kevin Hudson

Problem-solving. Communication. Teamwork. Civic education can teach all these skills—and they’re required for effective government.

At Kemper Academy in DeKalb, a group of students recently participated in the Keys to Community program, delivered annually by the Mississippi State University Extension Service. Keys to Community is a hands-on class for high schoolers that allows teens to meet in person with local elected officials and government leaders.

When youth learn about local government roles and see elected officials in action, they may be inspired to run for elected office themselves one day. Even if civic education doesn’t motivate teens to run for office, understanding how government works can be key to their recognizing its influence and role in society.

The Kemper Academy teens traveled to government offices where officials explained, in their own words, what they do and how they do it. While teens often have some knowledge of certain positions, like the sheriff or aldermen, they often don’t know much about other jobs, like the chancery clerk or tax assessor.

That’s why the local Keys to Community organizer, Malikah Jones, MSU Extension county coordinator, invites Sherline “D.” Watkins, chancery clerk, and Joycelyn Robertson, tax assessor and collector, to talk with participants every time she delivers the program.

“I’m fortunate to have some very supportive county leaders,” Jones emphasizes. “They have always been willing to assist me. More importantly, they see value in what we do. Every year I ask, and they always come through.

“It’s a partnership between Extension, the county officials, and the school coming together to make the program work,” she adds.

Watkins and Robertson offered engaging presentations, both inside and outside the Kemper County Courthouse, and explained what their roles are and how they accomplish them. From youth learning that the tax assessor’s office registers and delivers tags for vehicles to discovering that all deeds in the county are public records, available through the chancery clerk’s office, teens discovered the many responsibilities and roles Robertson and Watkins fill.

“Everybody should know the process of the tax assessor’s office and what happens with tax dollars,” Watkins says. “These young people who are coming up—that’s our future, and it’s so important that they know how tax dollars in the county work.

“Doing this program is a wonderful experience for the kids. We’ve got to keep doing it.”

Robertson agrees that Keys to Community is making a difference that matters in young people’s lives.

“I love working with the youth, and it’s so important for us to do this program,” Robertson emphasizes. “A lot of people don’t understand what all goes on in this office, so by explaining it to our young people now, they’ll have a better understanding when they get older.

“This Extension program is very important, and it’s helping these children be better citizens, more productive citizens. Extension means a lot in our community.”

For Jones, making sure that local elected officials participate in the Keys to Community program is one of the top reasons it remains successful and relevant to Kemper County youth.

“What better way for the kids to learn than from the ones who are actually out here doing the job from day to day, making decisions on behalf of the county?” she asks. “These youth are getting an understanding of their local government, how it operates, and how they can make a difference.

“When they leave here, I hope they have a better sense of the importance of just voting. And they may even want to consider making a difference by pursuing a career in public service.”

Spring 2023 Keys to Community participants from Kemper Academy included Natalee Bozeman, Brody Clay, Ethan Cordar, Rylee Gully, Braylee Johnson, Cailea Johnson, Evan Jolly, Zane Knight, JQ Mattix, and Jay McWilliams.

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