Nine Signs Your City Is Committed to Authentic Youth Civic Engagement

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As a city leader, how do you know if the policies and programs your city provides for youth are effective?  One great and often overlooked way is to engage the experts—youth—before, during and after decisions about the policies and programs that will affect them so they, too, can love their city.

In supporting youth, it is critical to center the voices of young people, especially traditionally underrepresented youth or youth missing from the conversation, such as youth of color, LGBTQA youth, undocumented youth, homeless youth, youth involved with the justice system, and others.

Our youth civic engagement perceptions inventory can help you determine how ready your community is to authentically engage young people in decision-making.

The Setting

Cities interested in building authentic youth civic engagement need 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.

To measure your community’s readiness, consider these two ratings from the inventory.

  1. Public officials and community leaders view youth as a valuable resource for improving the community for everyone.
  2. A local champion for youth civic engagement has enough authority to rally support among city departments and in the community.

In one example of valuing the voices of youth, Denver provided hundreds of youth diverse ways to contribute to the Denver Youth Health Assessment.  The city employed a small core group of youth to collect, analyze and apply to the assessment information they collected from hundreds of their peers through surveys and listening sessions.

The Structure

Cities also need structures in which the organization and system that supports authentic youth civic engagement meet both the needs of the local government and the interests of the young people.

Two ratings from our inventory offer an example of organization and system structures that will help determine if your city is prepared to support authentic youth civic engagement.

  1. Youth have access to transportation and other resources needed to support their active involvement.
  2. Capacity exists to provide adequate training to prepare youth to participate in meaningful roles and assist them in navigating adult-focused municipal settings.

Another example of system structure is the effort by four cities in Maryland to lower the local voting age to 16. Between 2013 and 2019 the following four cities lowered the voting age: Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Greenbelt, and Riverdale Park. In Greenbelt, youth leaders educated the public and won the first public referendum on the issue and a city council vote.

The Strategy

Cities need a strategy that offers youth and city leaders an opportunity to examine the wide array of challenges facing their municipality and provides them with a framework to affect systems change.

Two ratings from our inventory will help you determine if the strategy is appropriate for your city.

  1. City leaders see youth voice as more than just a single program and have taken active steps to embed it into municipal, school, neighborhood and community systems.
  2. The city provides an array of meaningful opportunities for all youth to join pro-social activities.

The My Brother’s Keeper Alliance relaunched the My Brother’s Keeper Network, a national call to action to build safe and supportive communities for boys and young men of color where they feel valued and have clear paths to opportunity. Youth, along with city and community leaders, philanthropists and other engaged citizens, informed the cradle to career framework. This strategy also engages youth in the vision, agenda, local action plan, and communications plan development, implementation, and evaluation processes.

The Support

Furthermore, cities building authentic youth civic engagement need support from adult allies in the public and private sectors that enable young people to gain the knowledge, training, and skills necessary to be civically engaged and career ready. Engaging adults with diverse experiences similar to those of youth, especially more marginalized youth, increase opportunities for youth to authentically engage in the community decision-making process.

To measure your community’s readiness, consider these three ratings from the inventory.

  1. Designated individuals within city government are responsible for carrying out youth and community engagement.
  2. Staff focused on youth have broad networks and experience enabling them to recruit and establish positive relationships with diverse youth.
  3. A network of caring, skilled adults exists to help youth have a role within local government and community decision-making.

In 2014, the city of Boston launched Youth Lead the Change — an annual $1 million participatory budget process led by youth between 12–25 years old. This initiative moves beyond directing programs at youth, it shifts power to the youth and enables them to navigate the governmental process.

NLC supports cities engaging youth in decisions through a collection of resources and its youth delegate program at City Summit and the Congressional City Conference.

About the Authors:

Laura E. Furr is the program manager for justice reform and youth engagement in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Laura on Twitter at @laura_furr or reach her at furr@nlc.org.

Jordan Carter is the senior associate for the Race, Equity, and Leadership (REAL) department at NLC.