One of the goals of the Northwest Community College Initiative (NWCCI) program is to provide students with opportunities to learn about government and democracy in the United States. Leon Ndlovu, a South African studying business at Pierce College, reflects on his recent visit to the Washington state capitol in Olympia, Washington. He notes that the Washington state capitol is much more accessible to the public than many other government institutions.
On March 13th we went to Washington state capitol of Olympia as part of the NWCCI program. The purpose of this trip was to learn more about local and state government in the United States. The state government in Olympia proved to be one of the most people-orientated government institutions.
The legislative building was completed and set into motion in 1922 and has withstood three major earthquakes. Its architectural structure is derived from the ancient Greece and Rome. It is also the home of the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, and other vital state officers. The most attractive site which caught my eye was the 278-foot-high dome of the main legislative building. The main building consists of the government’s offices as well as the house chambers where house members vote electronically for proposed bills. This system is used to promote transparency in voting. The house of representatives consists of 98 representatives; each from a particular legislative district and they all have desks on the house floor. Members of the public are allowed to attend any meeting, but they are not allowed to ask questions or interrupt the proceedings.
We also got a chance to meet with the Secretary of State Kim Wyman who mentioned to us that she works for the people. It is rare to hear such a statement. However, it made sense to me, because earlier on when we arrived at the Capitol; our tour guide, Mr. Gery Gerst, told us how transparent and open the State Capitol is to the people. All capitol proceedings can be viewed by the public and the public is also allowed bring guns into the capitol as long as they are not concealed. What really amazed my peers is that we didn’t even go through any metal detectors throughout the whole tour. In most government facilities we are bound to go through two or more metal detectors or have a search by security officials.
The state capitol was more of a welcoming and friendly environment; even the people who are working there talked to us in a polite manner. Though most of them were busy, they really took the time to look at us with a smile and some even greeted us. We also got the opportunity to go into the governors’ conference room, which is used for news conferences, bill signing, and other meetings related to the governors duties. The governors’ chair is the tallest and the table can accommodate up to 14 people. I got a chance to take one the most priceless photos there, which I’ll never forget.
I realized that conflicts will always be there due to different values and opinions. I, however, do find it necessary for the public to have a platform in the discussions and decisions which have an impact in their lives. This system is different from the one which we have at home. We do have the right to do most of the things which are done here in the United States, but we cannot practice them. Part of the South African constitution states that members of the community must be involved in the voting process for bills. Unfortunately most bills are passed without our input. Three years ago a secrecy bill was proposed in South Africa, which infringed on government transparency. This bill proposed to limit the list of people who can classify information. The public however believed that it was a way of hiding corruption and limiting exposure of the government’s wrongdoings. Transparency is one of the key components of the constitution and by passing this bill they have transgressed our rights.
A year ago I learned in a criminal justice lecture that as a citizen, I have a right to attend legislative meetings. I didn’t believe the lecturer and thought he was just joking. After what I witnessed at the State Capitol I realized that it was true. I realized that countries vary due to government’s decisions and limitations on the public’s involvement in government related activities. I believe that people’s involvement in government is crucial. Examples of this include the Washington Federation of Women’s Club picking the goldfinch as the state symbol in 1931. More recently, the Youth Opportunities Act (SHB 1651) was proposed by the community and is currently being discussed. It’s based on increasing employment. These are just a few of the ideas or actions which the public has taken, and they all had a positive impact on the state. We also saw George Washington’s face, which was made from bronze. The nose was more polished, because people kept on rubbing his nose as some said it’s for good luck. Our tour was an educational and inspiring thanks to Mr. Gery Gerst as he shared with us wonderful information about the State Capitol’s history and government branches.
The NWCCI program is part of the Community College Initiative, an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.