High school juniors and seniors from across Georgia's 12th Congressional District listened to speeches on leadership and asked questions of adult leaders during the 2016 GA-12 Youth Leadership Summit hosted by Congressman Rick Allen.
Allen, the Republican who represents the district in the U.S. House of Representatives, gave opening and closing remarks at the first-time event, held Thursday in the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center at Georgia Southern University. Allen also launched his re-election campaign this week and made a campaign stop in Statesboro earlier in the morning. But except for Allen's avowals of support for military funding, he and speakers such as Col. Sam Anderson, garrison commander at Fort Gordon at Augusta, kept political remarks out of the youth summit.
"We need visionary leaders in our military, we need visionary leaders in the various branches of our government, we need visionary leaders in our private businesses, on our college campuses, in our local schools," Anderson told the crowd. "There's not a particular age requirement to be a leader."
About 400 students and educators from schools across the 19-county district surrounded tables in the full banquet hall, which had all the dividers retracted, for the 4 ½-hour summit. They came from as near as Bulloch, Evans and Jenkins counties and from as far south as Baxley. A large contingent rode school buses to Statesboro from Augusta, Allen's hometown and the district's largest city.
In 2014, Fort Gordon, already a major base for signals and intelligence units, became home to the new U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence, to include the cyber warfare command. Now, regional leaders have a goal to make the Augusta region "the Silicon Valley of cyber security," Anderson said.
Anderson doesn't command the Cyber Center, which is led by a major general. But as garrison commander, the colonel is in charge of the post itself, or as he put it, "in civilian terms, the city manager of an Army installation." As such, Anderson has led in preparing the installation to host the new command center.
This is a very different role from the command assignments he held as a younger officer in charge of first a communications unit and then a selected special operations unit, but the basics of leadership remain the same, Anderson said. He talked about building the loyalty of subordinates and entrusting them to make decisions.
Blue Devil question
In the summit's first question-and-answer session, the first student to stand up and ask a question was Demarka Smith, 17, a Statesboro High School senior and one of the school's two Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps battalion commanders. Just this year, Statesboro High's JROTC program has transitioned to the brigade system, Smith said.
"We're working out a few kinks here and there, but what would you say would be a motivational thing, or an improvement thing, to tell to next year's leaders?" he asked the colonel.
"One of the things that I would tell them, if you're advising the people that are coming up the next year ... is to take every opportunity to be involved," Anderson said, "to put yourself out there and be uncomfortable, you know ... whether it be Ranger Challenge, drill teams, debate teams, anything that you can do to push yourself."
Smith plans to study aeronautical engineering at Norwich University in Vermont, where he will continue in the ROTC. He said he hopes to become an officer and serve in an engineering unit.
Besides Allen, who also introduced the speakers, the summit included another member of Congress, Rep. Tom Graves, as a guest speaker. Graves, from the 14th District, chairs Georgia's Republican congressional delegation and has received awards from national conservative groups for his stances.
But his nonpartisan remarks to the students were entitled "Taking the Me Out of Mediocrity."
Other speakers were Georgia Southern Eagles head football coach Tyson Summers and morning show personality Stephanie Miller from Dublin's Hot Country Hits Y96 radio station. Summers' talk was on "Three Dimensional Leadership"; Miller's was "1. Give in. 2. Give up. 3. Give it all you got!"
Besides JROTC cadet officers, student leaders who attended included sports team captains and student government members. One local student, 18, said she wasn't any of those, but has recently become a registered voter. Several students who were briefly interviewed said this was the first time they had heard from members of Congress in person.
Allen, however, greeted the students by saying it was they who impressed him.
"This is a bit overwhelming, I tell you," he said. "The future of our country is right here. The future of our district is right here, and I'm honored to have you here."
Allen introduced members of his staff, including those who work within the district, who organized the event.
Instead of the students and chaperones from each school being seated together, those from various schools were mixed throughout the room. Allen encouraged students to introduce themselves to one another.
"Networking is one of the best tools," he said. "You'll never know who the people at your table may be in 20 years. Say 'hi,' shake hands, visit during the break. Get to know each other."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.