Engaging Youth in Local Government

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When Alderperson Scott Resnick of Madison, Wisconsin ran for local elected office in 2011 at the age of 24, he knocked on nearly every door in his district – which encompasses parts of the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus and surrounding neighborhoods.  As he was greeted by residents, some would mistakenly ask, “Are you running for student council?”  To their initial surprise, Resnick replied that he was seeking their vote for a seat on the Madison Common Council.

Engaged in local governance from a young age, Alderperson Resnick joined his home town’s Youth Action Council while in high school, continued his passion for public service in various clubs throughout college at UW-Madison, and upon graduation, served as President of the State-Langdon Neighborhood Association.  In 2004 during his junior year in high school, Resnick also served as a youth representative on NLC’s Council on Youth, Education, and Families.

“From my earliest days involved with local government back in Wausau, I learned to love how communities are made strong by effective and creative leadership,” said Resnick.

At NLC’s Congress of Cities in Boston last month, Alderperson Resnick shared his experience in local government with nearly 100 youth delegates.  Joining him on the panel were Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley, age 33, and Coral Springs City Commissioner Dan Daley, age 22.  The young elected leaders told the youth to not let their age restrict them from engaging in public service – that their voice adds value to the design of local policies, practices, and public spaces.

Youth as Participants

Over the years, municipal leaders have increasingly championed this same message in cities across the country.  More and more city leaders see youth as a resource for community problem-solving rather than simply recipients of services.  Youth are working with elected officials and other city leaders to tackle important issues, and similar to Alderperson Resnick, discovering that their voice matters to their communities and taking initiative to make it heard.

For instance, in Boston, with the emphatic support of Mayor Thomas Menino, youth participation in local governance is a pervasive and self-perpetuating expectation throughout the city.  Part of the comprehensive Boston Youth Zone initiative, the Boston Mayor’s Youth Council (MYC) empowers youth to act as advocates for themselves and their peers through identifying and representing the needs and desires of the youth community before city leadership.

The council consists of 40 high school juniors and seniors selected from each of the city’s 12 neighborhoods to ensure that the council represents the diversity of youth in Boston.  Council members are highly responsive to their peers, and conduct regular outreach to their neighbors and local community organizations.  At the same time, MYC staff encourage youth to explore their political interests, connecting them with state legislators, U.S. Senators, members of the White House, among others.

A Youth Participation Framework

In addition to engaging the next generation of civic leaders, cities using effective approaches to youth participation are realizing far reaching benefits such as budget savings and revenue generation; increased support for city initiatives; improved policies and programs for youth; identification as a youth-friendly community; and improved indicators of well-being among youth.

NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) has drawn upon the experiences of communities with the most robust youth engagement initiatives to develop an Authentic Youth Civic Engagement (AYCE) framework consisting of four critical elements for a successful initiative:

  • A setting in which the civic climate of the community is welcoming and inviting to youth, acknowledging their role in public policy, planning, and decision-making;
  • A structure in which the organization and system that supports AYCE meets both the needs of the local government and the interests of the young people;
  • A strategy that offers a wide range of activities and provides youth with a breadth and depth of meaningful opportunities for participation in local government; and
  • Support from adult allies, both within and outside local government, which enables the young people involved in AYCE efforts to have a real impact on issues that concern them.

Like any other local initiative, there may be no magic recipe for youth participation. But, as noted by Alderperson Resnick, Counselor O’Malley, and Commissioner Daley, it must begin with an acknowledgement that the youth voice matters – that youth are valuable stakeholders, capable of contributing to the vibrancy of our communities.

To learn more about how your community can engage youth in local decision making, contact Leon T. Andrews Jr., at (202) 626-3039 or andrews@nlc.org.

1 comments on “Engaging Youth in Local Government”

  1. It’s funny, I attended a GEN Y planning session just this week and the room of 60+ young people were asked if they’d like to get more involved… there answer is a resounding “yes” but people just have to ask them or let them know a little more about what’s going on.

    I think a common problem is an event is posted or a committee is formed, but you may not know if it’s alright for you to go or if you’re even supposed to be there. I suppose it’s old-fashioned to reach out and ask them if they would like to go, but that’s about as simple and easy as it is.

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