Don’t call it a dynasty just yet, but for the second year in a row a Portland high school has the best Constitution team in the country. Grant High’s team took top honors at the “We the People” event in Washington D.C. on Monday night, besting 57 teams from across the country. Lincoln High School won the 2012 contest. 

The competition takes the form of a congressional hearing. Students play the part of constitutional experts testifying in front of legislative committees played by various lawyers and legal professionals. 

Adam Penrose, a senior at Grant and a member of the 34-student team, took time away from gawking at dinosaur skeletons at the Smithsonian Museum to talk about the experience, political discourse in high school and why living in Little Beirut helped the team. 

WW: Tell me about the competition and how it works. 

Penrose: We’re given three questions by the central organization and we write a direct answer to those questions. They can be about anything from immigration to all sorts of different subjects. In my unit, we discussed problems facing the future of the Constitution, so we focused a lot on current events and what could be potential events of the future involving constitutional issues. We get questions about immigration and the universal declaration of human rights and civil rights movements. We prepare a four minute speech to answer those questions. Then we are mooted, where the judges ask us about literally anything regarding the original question and our answer. So we just have to know as much as we can. It requires a pretty broad base of knowledge on each issue. 

WW: What were some of the questions that you were asked specifically? 

Penrose: One of my favorite questions that I was asked was a civil rights question on the last day. It was an eleven-minute moot, which was especially long. The judge asked what our current civil events and current civil rights issues are. Basically, in my contribution—and it was a very small part of a very big answer from us—I got to talk about how Grant High School instituted trans-gender bathrooms and how transgender rights are on the forefront of public issues, at least in Portland. And then I got to talk about some Arizona legislation that would make it a crime if you don’t go to the bathroom that matches the gender on your birth certificate. So that was a cool one. 

Also, my colleagues Haley [Steiner], Parkes [Kendrick], Ella [Ben-Zaken] and Simon [Swifter] all talked about disabilities rights, women’s rights and contraceptive rights. I think we were one of the more progressive teams that they’ve seen. I didn’t get to see the other teams, but I think we have a unique perspective coming from Portland. It’s such a liberal and progressive place. I think [the people of Portland] try to do the best by everybody. We have all these issues that we know about because we care about everyone. 

WW: You were saying you spoke on the current state of American democracy. In your opinion, how is the current state of American democracy?

Penrose: Oh wow! I think there is a lot of issues, particularly regarding gerrymandering, money and politics, pretty widespread voter disenfranchisement for any variety of reasons. There’s a lot of problems, but I’m also optimistic. As a group of people, as Americans, we’ve overcome a lot worse and will continue to overcome our problems. 

WW: Tell me more about the event. Where were hearings held? 

Penrose: The first two hearings were at George Mason University. The last one was in the House Judiciary Committee room. It thought it was cool being there because it was the same place that President [Richard] Nixon was tried in. Each session we had three different judges and they were all legal professionals. 

WW: Being in that kind of environment, in that kind of room, with those kinds of judges, how did you feel going into it?

Penrose: I think the whole team was really nervous, but we tried to own the room. We got to use the same one for the entire day which was good. We were nervous, but we practiced a lot. We’ve gotten so much help from our coaches and teachers. A bunch of our parents were there and everyone in the room was there cheering you on. The judges were there, but they aren’t really your enemy. You are just talking to them. So it wasn’t necessarily intimidating it was just a really cool experience. Although, everyone was nervous. We all wanted to do well. 

WW: What was one of the hardest questions they asked of you or of your subject? 

Penrose: Well on the first day, one of the judges just asked us, “So what have you learned in your unit?” The question was kind of disappointing for a lot of people in my group because it’s such a softball-kind of question and we had been preparing for so many hard questions that we could into depth with. I don’t want to complain that they gave us an easy question because we said to ourselves, “well, okay, we can answer this,” but we could also talk about something that we’ve really worked for. 

WW: So what are some of the other things they asked you about that you relished answering? 

Penrose: I think our unit really shined on questions regarding international law and anything civil rights. Everyone is pretty passionate about most of the issues in our unit. That’s what was so great about being in our section. For me, all the issues are current events, they relate to you or people that you know. 

WW: Can you give me an example of a civil rights question you guys were asked? 

Penrose: So they asked something like, “What factors would you look for in a civil rights movement if you were to be a part of it?” So we got to discuss Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham jail and we got to talk about some of our experiences with civil rights and we got to talk about issues that really mattered to us. I think we were able to show some our passion which I hope the judges saw. 
WW: When did you join the Constitution team and how did you get involved?

Penrose: This team started late last summer. I saw the team as a really great experience that Grant High School has to offer. Schools without these constitution teams can’t offer this experience. It’s a really unique program. You are offered a bunch of support. There are a lot of adults in the program besides your parents that care about you which is sort of a rare experience. I saw it as something I was given the opportunity to take advantage of it, so I just went for it. 

WW: Before that, have you always been interested in politics or constitutional law?

Penrose: I’ve always been interested in history and politics, but I’d always kind of been detached from it. It has never been something that I’ve studied as hard as I have the past couple months. 

WW: How has that shaped your political ideology? 

Penrose: In high school, as far as politics go, I know there are tons of schools where people are so apathetic. Also, a lot of times in high school people think of politics as “I’m part of the blue team and you’re part of the red team and we can’t talk about politics and we can’t get along.” Basically it’s really partisan. It can be very knee-jerk because not everybody is very educated about the issues and nobody really wants to talk about them. So I think Con-team provides a forum where you can actually talk about political issues with people who are interested. Also, it’s sort of shown the dangers of being so knee-jerk partisan that you can’t hear someone out. Civil discourse is so important and I’ve learned that through the Constitution team and we’ve definitely used it in Con-team. 

WW: Regarding those discussions with teammates, is there a variety of constitutional views on the Grant Con-team? 

Penrose: Defintely. The Grant Constitution team is a pretty good representation of how Portland is a really diverse place as far as ways of thinking about the world go. There are tons of different opinions in Portland. There’s kids and adults who think in ways that aren’t present in other places and that is definitely true as well on our Con-team. 

WW: Aside from winning the competition, what was a personal highlight of this experience for you? 

Penrose: I really liked just working closely with the team. These are kids who I definitely didn’t know that well before Con-team and now I’ve worked closely with them and we’ve achieved something together. So it is just fun to spend time with them and discuss these issues with them.