Words of Wisdom

I never really liked government class in high school. Or history for that matter. It all had that geeky, this-does-not-relate-to-my-life feel to it. And as a young adult I confused government with politics prompting me to steer as far as I could from all the rhetoric and conflict that seemed to accompany it.

So it seems strange that I would sit here reflecting on a career that focused on encouraging youth to get involved in local government, and working to break down the barriers that keep them away. The turning point came, I believe, when I started to grasp the idea of ‘community’ and realized that government – good or bad – is the fundamental institution that impacts what that community will be like for all of its citizens regardless of age.

Most towns/counties/cities want youth involvement in municipal government, at least to some extent, and many do an admirable job of inviting young people into various government settings. For the most part, they are confused as to how to recruit youth and what kinds of activities to open up to youth engagement. And on the youth side, they can be apathetic or believe that their voice won’t matter.

If I were pressed to offer just three words of wisdom based on about 30 years of working with youth in government, I would say: Resource, Opportunities, Partnership. I’ll explain.

Resource. One of the most challenging shifts a community needs to make in order to engage youth in government is to see them as resources rather than just recipients of the city’s services. Youth engagement in government can’t happen until everyone believes that they belong there. That includes you as youth.

As a young person, do you see yourself as an "expert"on anything related to your local government? Consider this: you and your peers are the only ones who know what it is like to be a young member of your community in 2012. You bring a unique perspective, an incredible amount of knowledge, plus a fresh perspective on all the issues facing your local decision-makers. You are a valuable, untapped resource. The best place to begin is to demonstrate this to the adults.

Just think about the things you care passionately about – safety in your neighborhood, curricular or extracurricular offerings at school, parks/recreation facilities, how youth are treated downtown, bike lanes, drug abuse -- somewhere in local government, someone is working on these issues, and they need your help!

Opportunities. Ideally, local government would offer a system of opportunities for youth to get involved. In most cases that doesn’t happen, but it can be a goal. Youth in government should not be a one-size-fits-all experience. You should be able to choose your participation (based on time, interest, skills, etc.) from a range of experiences.

In Hampton, VA, where I worked for many years, we structured our opportunities according to four pathways:

  • Involvement – youth were active volunteers, participating in projects that helped the city. Neighborhood cleanups are an example, as are voter registration drives, or creating a candidate’s forum for local elections.
  • Consultation – youth attended public meetings or participated in advisory groups to express their opinions and have direct input into city decisions. In my favorite examples, youth had a say in the city capital improvement plan, decisions about building new schools and the design of a city park.
  • Representation – selected youth served on boards and commissions on behalf of their peers with a vote and a stake in the agenda of that organization. For example, two seats on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board were reserved for youth.
  • Shared leadership – youth take on positions of authority with adults as colleagues, sharing accountability for the goals and outcomes of the activity. In Hampton, two high school students worked in the planning department to help shape city plans and policies.
  • Partnership – The idea of a youth and adult partnership is foreign for most adults. As adults, we tend to either take total control of situations or sit back and "let the kids do it" – neither of which is an optimal strategy for success. It’s no wonder that youth are reluctant to take us up on our good intentions. The ideal posture is "shoulder to shoulder," meaning that we share our expertise, translate our worlds to each other and work collaboratively toward our mutual goals.

My best advice is to get some friends and find an ally in local government; an adult who "gets it." There are lots of resources nationally that America’s Promise can share with you, and people to help along the way. Your efforts will be rewarded. It’s worth it – for you, your community, and our shared future.