Washburn senior wins state student council presidency

Henry Williams has what any politician wants: an effortless way of making friends, loyal allies and a tightly organized campaign

If you want to know what it's like to be the most popular kid in school, walk down the hallways of Washburn High School with 12th-grader Henry Williams and you'll get a pretty good feel for it. Williams has the swagger of a confident 17-year-old; he waves, bobs his head, hugs and is acknowledged by half the students who walk past him.

Williams has already used his energetic personality to win a statewide political position. This year, he's the president of the Minnesota Association of Student Councils -- an elected body of about 350 students from every high school in the state. He won the election last April in an unusually competitive race between six candidates.

As president, Williams represents all of the student councils in the state at a myriad of statewide educational organizations, and he'll run the state convention this year.

It's been 11 years since a Minneapolis student was elected to a student council statewide office, and Pam Olson, student activity advisor for the Minneapolis public schools, said it's an asset to have Williams in such a visible position. "Its very beneficial because it lets people [outside the city] know that we have great kids in Minneapolis and that they can do all the same things that their kids do," said Olson.

"What is unique about Henry is it is absolutely effortless for him to make friends, kids sense that, and adults like him, too," she said.

A political career

Williams, who began his "political career" in 6th grade at Powderhorn Community School, has benefited from plenty of adults who saw his potential. "In 5th grade I played basketball and was a shy teacher's pet, but my teacher encouraged me to run for class representative," said Williams.

He won that race, then moved briefly to Wayzata for family reasons. He credits his outgoing personality to that switch. "It forced me to step out of my comfort zone," said Williams.

Though new, his peers elected him a student leader that year. "I think everyone was really nice to me because I was the new black kid; they tried to get me to join the football or basketball team," said Williams. "I guess it's what they thought black kids want to do."

He later moved back to city schools, where he became a middle school citywide representative at Folwell Middle School.

Being mentored

Williams credits Olson for encouraging him to run for the state office. "She gave me a lot of leadership training; she told me how to represent myself, how to network, how to speak -- she's always working on my grammar and how to speak properly," said Williams.

For some kids, attending six different elementary and middle schools would make it tough to acclimate, but Williams says they were opportunities to meet new people.

"Why he has this resiliency, we don't know," said Olson. "Henry's faith is important to him. He also has the ability to force himself to meet new people in a new situation. He seems to know how to handle discomfort."

Well-oiled campaign

To win the state student council presidency, Williams benefited from a strong group of 40 students from the seven Minneapolis Public High Schools working together to elect city candidates.

"They are all so proud of being from the city," said Olson.

Williams doesn't think the urban candidates were at a disadvantage. "The other students are drawn to the Minneapolis delegates. It's probably because we're the most outgoing, the loudest and the most fun," said Williams.

His campaign, held in Pequot Lakes over a three-day conference, had plenty of fun. "My campaign slogan was 'O Henry: The Man with the Plan,' and we gave out O Henry candy bars," said Williams.

He also wore a six-button brown alligator print suit and had a karaoke machine at his campaign booth. "I got a lot of my ideas from previous years," said Williams.

It wasn't all fun and games, said Yokiana Brock, a Junior at Patrick Henry High School who also won a statewide position as a representative to the Youth Advisory Council for the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning. "Henry and I both came to the conference intending to break down stereotypes of kids from inner-city schools. We made an effort to make people feel welcome around us," said Brock.

Williams admits delegates from Minneapolis have to fight off negative stereotypes. "We always have to tell them, 'no, we don't all carry guns at our school,'" he said.

While the student delegates appreciated the glitz, they also took the elections seriously. "We deal [as elected leaders] with legislators, so the delegates need to feel comfortable that we can represent them well. But at the same time, nobody wants to be around an uptight 17- or 18-year-old," said Brock.

Though both Williams and Brock said they went to the convention with an open mind, they didn't take a laid-back approach. "We had very good campaign managers. When Henry and I decided to run, we wanted to win. So we were well-prepared," said Brock.

Williams, a senior, said he's interested in studying political science in college; he may go to school in Washington D.C. next year, but he's not set on a political career. "I like debating, and I love meeting new people, but I don't like politics or politicians -- there's too much funny business," said Williams.

Want to hang with Henry?

Any public middle school or high school student can participate in Citywide Student Government -- they just have to be on target for graduation.

Students discuss concerns, gain leadership skills, voice opinions and speak with the school board. High school students can gain community service/leadership elective credits.

To participate, call Derek Emery at the Student Activities Office (668-0160) or talk to a school student council advisor.