By Cynthia Segovia, Sam Feldman, and Daniel Ortiz-Hernandez, Alliance for Innovation Research Assist
By Cynthia Segovia, Sam Feldman, and Daniel Ortiz-Hernandez, Alliance for Innovation Research Assistants
Nelson Henderson—an early farmer in Manitoba, Canada—said to one of his sons, on his graduation day, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” In that same sense, engaging youth in local government is about planting the seeds of public service from which the current generation of managers may never benefit.
The benefits of engaging youth in local government are immense. When youth are knowledgeable about their city and engaged in the local community, it is likely they will remain connected to the community as they grow: running for local government office, joining boards and commissions, or otherwise supporting their local government.
It is not just city government that benefits; the youth themselves and the local community profit as well. Many youth commissions are dedicated to community service or representing youth issues to city government. The youth who serve on such commissions gain valuable leadership and advocacy skills and are able to apply them in their local community and future careers.
In our interviews with participants in Imagine Memphis and the City of Phoenix Youth and Education Commission, we learned how some youth became involved in local government. It is possible to create connected and successful communities when local governments, organizations, and residents work in tandem to create the networks and methods for youth participation.
Imagine Memphis was established in the fall of 2007. Modeled after Imagine Chicago, Imagine Memphis is a community organization where youth and adults come together to have a discussion about issues in Memphis, Tennessee, and to share their vision for the city. Mary Jo Greil, one of the founders of Imagine Memphis, said, “This program is about providing a process and visibility of the importance of youth and adults working together and learning from each other.”
Imagine Memphis accomplishes this through a novel project that enables Memphis youth and adults to communicate with one another. At the heart of Imagine Memphis is the Discovery Team, composed of youth and adults who meet on a monthly basis to plan and organize the events that make Imagine Memphis a success.
The first part to Imagine Memphis is its Discovery Interviews, where youth are given the opportunity to interview adult community leaders from a broad range of professions and backgrounds. These interviews follow the appreciative inquiry model, where the focus is on the positive aspects of Memphis. The next step is Leading the Way, where youth give meaning to the results of their interviews. In the final step, youth share the results of the dialogue with Memphis community organizations.
In March 2008, a Discovery Event was hosted, and as a result of the event youth were able to outline the priorities they considered important for the development and prosperity of Memphis. They concluded that Memphis needed several changes: a stronger school system, safer communities, minority participation in leadership, minority participation in entertainment, minority participation in communication, and less race-based politics.
Katelyn, a high school senior and a member of Imagine Memphis’s design team, explained the connection she has developed with her community: “My perspective [on Memphis] has changed a lot. My own attitude toward my city had been positive, but now I have a hopeful perspective that Memphis is and will be a wonderful place.”
City of Phoenix Youth and Education Commission
Involving youth in local government is not an easy task, and there is no single formula for participation. The City of Phoenix has had many youth leadership roles over the past few decades. The city hosted its first town hall devoted to youth thirty years ago. It has a Youth and Education Commission that brings together fifteen adult and twelve youth members.
As part of project to “presence the future” using Scharmer’s Theory U, the youth chose one issue that seemed to be affecting youth in the city of Phoenix most: teen pregnancy. The process is not complete, but the youth on the commission have concluded that many of their assumptions about teen pregnancy were wrong. They used video, interviews, research, discussion, and critical thinking, gaining skills in a wide range of techniques for discovery, and they are developing service projects to learn more about teen pregnancy and hopefully to address the negative outcomes it can produce. They are also sponsoring an art competition about teen pregnancy.
Theo, 16, is in her second year of serving on the Youth Commission. She said she has learned many things this year that she wants to share with city leaders. Local governments should provide more public spaces for teenagers, she said, but not just to keep youth away from negative influences. “We need more libraries, nicer public parks, and better places where youth can just get together. That’s what we want to do; we want to hang out, be together, and explore ourselves. Doing that for youth is one of the best things that the government can do.” The Youth Commission has provided an opportunity for Theo to see the entire scope of an issue.
Oswaldo, 15, also a second-year member on the commission, said that he, too, has learned a lot from being on the commission. He encourages his peers to get involved. “Teens should not be scared to step up to the government. They should share their views. We are going to grow up, and we’re going to be running the government.” That focus on the future makes youth an essential part of local government.
As Theo and Oswaldo see it, the benefits are endless, both for themselves and for their communities. When asked what being a member of the Youth Commission means to her, Theo said, “It means I am contributing to the local community, learning about it and being a part of it, where otherwise I would not get that opportunity. It means being a representative of youth in Phoenix, and showing others the good things that young people are doing. We act as that liaison between the government and the youth.” It is in that role that Theo is able to flourish and to imagine her own future as a leader of her community.
Role of Youth in the Future
In the end, youth participation is not just a policy of civic engagement; it is a form of crime prevention, succession planning, and even economic development. By bringing youth through the doors of city hall, current local government administrators are ensuring the sustainability of their own organizations and communities. In just a few years, those same youth, now young professionals, may walk through the doors of city hall again—this time as elected leaders, employees, or proactive citizens. These future leaders are among us today, in skate parks, youth commissions, and nonprofit organizations. Capturing their ambition, energy, and hope may be the best thing a local government can do today to plant the seeds, as Henderson would say, for the trees under which we never expect to sit.