With our longstanding support of authentic youth civic engagement, the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families is inspired by the recent wave of youth activism across the country. We are also disheartened that some youth among the student survivors of the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida feel that, as they put it, “They don’t hear us unless we scream!”
As the representatives of government most in touch with children and youth in communities across the country, city leaders can and should be listening to the voices of young people.
Led by the courageous survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman High School mass shooting, youth across the nation are raising their voices and demanding to be heard. Whether one agrees with their positions or not, they deserve a seat at the table.
City leaders can create structures and spaces for youth to speak and be heard. Structures that many cities have used include youth councils and mayor’s advisory boards. In order to make these effective, city leaders have to consistently listen to and value what the city’s young people have to say and recognizing the expertise they have on the circumstances of their own lives.
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City leaders should also avoid “adultism,” which happens when adults view their opinions as more valuable and “right” than youth opinions purely based on age. Including youth in important city government conversations, of course, goes beyond hearing them out on how to reduce gun violence.
Youth issues are community issues. Young people are impacted by all of the decisions made by local government, even those that don’t seem like “youth issues.” Children suffer when the lack of infrastructure investments keeps them from being able to get to school every day or makes traveling around their community a constant struggle for families without cars.
Youth suffer when the local workforce opportunities limit their options to a few jobs with sporadic hours at retail and fast food outlets or the illegal drug trade. Children suffer deeply when national, state and local criminal law enforcement unnecessarily incarcerates parents, locks families into cycles of debt and limits lifetime job opportunities for adults, to name a few examples.
Local government should be accessible to young people and give them meaningful opportunities to weigh in on community issues. NLC has long supported youth engagement by including more than 400 youth each year in our annual conferences and providing city leaders with resources and information like the Authentic Youth Civic Engagement Guide; Participatory Budgeting; and guidance on lowering the voting age in municipal elections.
For more information on how the YEF Institute can help you give your city’s young people an authentic seat at the table, contact Laura Furr at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember, it’s an important moment for our youth to be heard — and it’s our responsibility to listen to them.
About the Authors: Laura E. Furr is the program manager for justice reform and youth engagement in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Laura on Twitter at @laura_furr or reach her at email@example.com.
Todd Allen Wilson is the senior writer in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.