Seventeen-year-old Mark Stevens has been living in his political family’s shadow.
For years, he had heard stories of his great-grandfather Paul Wunsch’s decades of leadership in the Kansas House and Senate and 1964 campaign for governor. Stevens’ neighbors recounted tales of his uncle Robert Wunsch’s service in the Kansas House of Representatives during the 1980s. He had even toured the statehouse and gazed up at the portrait of his great-grandfather framed on the wall outside the Kansas Senate Chamber, hanging next to fellow presidents of the Senate.
Still, Stevens said his kin’s accomplishments had always seemed so far from reach.
“It was always surreal,” Stevens said. “I felt very distanced from it.”
But this summer, the gap began to close. Stevens started walking in his family’s footsteps when he attended the National Young Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., July 14-23, where he participated in a model Congress program, working hand-in-hand with fellow conference participants from across the country to develop legislation. There, the young leaders were randomly sorted into opposing political parties and challenged to come together to solve real-world problems.
Stevens, a liberal-leaning moderate, was reluctant when he was assigned to represent the Republican Party, the same party his great-grandfather led half a century ago. But Stevens now says the once uncomfortable arrangement actually taught him more about the political process.
“I was exposed to people not along my track of thinking,” Stevens said. “I am most proud of the fact that I found you can be bipartisan. It is just a matter of will and civility.”
Stevens, one of only two participants from Kansas, knocked out about 300 of his fellow participants from across the country for the position of Speaker of the House, the same position Wunsch held in the Kansas House of Representatives from 1937 to 1943, and says the opportunity was inspiring.
“On the last day, I looked out from the podium and thought, ‘Every single person here has the potential to be a good leader, but they will never really unlock that until they believe in themselves and work together. Then, they can make a difference.’”
The rising Lawrence High School senior joined the debate team and began tackling hot topics at competitions around the state a few years ago. Now, with college just around the corner, Stevens is set in motion.
“Before the conference, I thought about becoming an astrophysicist because I always loved studying the galaxies,” Stevens said. “But now it feels like there is a lot more potential to do more good than that. I feel now that I can make a difference."