(This article was prepared for the Oklahoma Academy’s 2010 Town Hall on municipal government. If, like me, your ADD struggles with the line spacing below, download the PDF here: The Case for Youth Engagement.pdf)
The Case for Youth Engagement
The issue of youth engagement often falls on the back burner for most municipal governments — an item to be addressed when the larger issues clear off the plates of policymakers.
Unfortunately, those plates never clear. And more often than not, including a city’s young adults in local government becomes a side issue passed from person to person — lacking continuity and follow-through to ensure these efforts grow, build upon past successes, and serve as a true opportunity for youth and an idea incubator for policymakers. It may become an issue raised occasionally by individual elected officials, but rarely does a youth engagement effort become ingrained within a governmental body and actively pursued.
This is a loss for our next generation of leaders, and it comes with real consequences to municipalities. Cities that actively and consistently engage youth see a host of returns on their investment: a higher percentage of youth meeting developmental milestones; increased voter turnout and civic participation among young adults and across demographic groups; a source for new strategies and unconventional problem-solving; and a sense of community ownership that decreases brain drain and retains local talent.
Perhaps most importantly, these tangible benefits act as markers for healthy cities: cities where businesses want to relocate and families want to raise their children, and cities whose citizens enjoy a higher quality of life. In an increasingly globalized world — where geography and distance matter less and less for job opportunities — young professionals instead consider the quality of life offered by the cities where they are considering living. Without meaningful youth engagement strategies, municipalities miss out on these benefits, and slip in their regional, national, and international competitive advantage.
In this article, I want to focus on two things: first, a summary of the Tulsa Youth Council; and second, a set of “best practices” for municipal youth engagement, taken from the successes and failures we’ve seen in Tulsa in its youth engagement efforts.
Tulsa’s Youth Council
The Tulsa Youth Council was initially formed in 2000 to solicit youth
opinion on local governance and create an avenue for youth representation in local policymaking. While this vision marked a breakthrough in the relationship between Tulsa’s youth and City of Tulsa officials, participation by members soon began to slip — mainly due to a lack of focus, impact, and dedicated resources.
I joined the Tulsa City Council in 2008, and was charged with making the Youth Council successful, or canceling the program. Rather than immediately recruiting Youth Councilors, I created a steering committee of ten Tulsa high school students to examine the Youth Council as a whole, and ultimately provide a renewed focus and strategic vision for the program. Intentionally crafted to alleviate the weaknesses of the initial Youth Council model, the Steering Committee engaged in a comprehensive strategic planning process that incorporated goals of the city and youth members; assessed the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats; and established a work plan for the next three years. The 2009-2010 Youth Council was the first to act on this vision, and worked to both implement those goals and raise the organization’s profile within the community.
The Rules of Engagement — Best Practices for Municipal Youth Engagement
Include Youth from the Ground Level
The creation of a youth council or other youth engagement strategy is often first initiated by a group of policymakers or elected officials, and then transmitted to youth as a directive. Unfortunately, this created a challenge for the Tulsa Youth Council: youth members had no role in its creation, and as a result felt little connection to its mission; no voice in how it operated; and little knowledge of their role in the larger political scene.
One of the key objectives in creating any new initiative is to create “buy-in” from area stakeholders, and youth organizations should be no different. To do this, Tulsa City Councilors approved a steering committee charged to balance the goals of Tulsa’s municipal government with those of the Youth Councilors, and reforming the program to reflect those goals. I came to the table with a set of goals from the City’s perspective; Steering Committee members then shaped how they were met and incorporated goals that reflected the issues most important to them. By engaging in a comprehensive strategic plan, members also gained an appreciation for municipal political structures; ran a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of their own organization; determined what they wanted to accomplish — and how they were going to do it.
This “buy in” was instrumental in our future recruitment and outreach. Because they felt ownership over the organization, they worked harder in promoting it, brought in others from the youth community, and invested in its long-term success.
In the second year, I experienced some challenges in carrying this momentum forward, and I think a large part of it is a result of not taking the time to generate this “buy in” for a new group of members. Many of the old problems began to seep in, including lack of participation and challenges keeping everyone engaged. For the 2010-2011 year, we plan to guide Youth Councilors through a review of the initial strategic plan and the creation of a yearlong work program that meets earlier goals, but in a way that utilizes individual talents and interests.
Be Open to New Means of Communication
It’s often joked that this youngest generation is the “Facebook” or “MySpace” generation, and doesn’t know how to properly communicate with one another in a face-to-face situation. To some degree, that’s true: youth today are far more comfortable communicating online than their previous generations, and have an instinctive knowledge of the rules for doing so. In my experience, however, this is a far greater strength than it is a weakness, and offers municipalities with extra tools in engaging youth — and doing so meaningfully. This played itself out in several ways: first, in my communication directly with Youth Councilors; and second, through our outreach to the youth community at large.
As a specific example, much of my communication with Youth Councilors outside of our weekly meetings was through text messages. While this differed from the conventional email or phone call, I often got instant responses far sooner than I would have from email — members always had their phone on them, and the expectation to respond immediately to texts ensured I didn’t have to wait for everyone to find time to check their inboxes.
On a larger scale, we also used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to promote the accomplishments of the Youth Council and broadcast them to a wide network of individuals. Much like an email newsletter, this brought our message directly to the youth in a context many of them already frequented, and allowed them to quickly spread the word among their peers. It also provided a great way to rally adults in Tulsa to the cause and let others know about our organization.
Bring Diverse Backgrounds to the Table
Throughout two years of weekly Youth Council meetings, the best nights have consistently been those where the group hit on an issue they were passionate about. Often these were based in municipal politics: debating the merits behind the new downtown ballpark, analyzing the value and feasibility of youth on City commissions, and discussing educational initiatives with Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Ballard and then-Mayor Kathy Taylor.
But these conversations have frequently been about larger social issues as well. One of my favorite nights involved a two-hour conversation on affirmative action. For ten individuals preparing for college, it was an understandably hot issue; but most importantly, they all approached the subject from different perspectives and contributed elements from their own backgrounds into the conversation.
The central key to all of these memorable nights was a diversity of opinion on the Youth Council. Creating this diversity in youth organizations requires a concerted, intentional effort. It begins with a recruitment process that advertises heavily in multiple, unique channels, and is reinforced by a selection process that intentionally creates a group with unique — and often conflicting — perspectives and diverse life experiences.
The Tulsa Youth Council regularly sends applications and program materials to Tulsa Public School teachers and administrators; teachers and leaders of private schools in town; religious groups; and non-traditional organizations serving youth: Tulsa Youth Services, Youth Leadership Forum, and the Mental Health Association of Tulsa, to name a few. This has not only increased our application numbers – it’s enriched our program.
Many youth councils have a geographic diversity requirement, and this is a step in the right direction. The Tulsa Youth Council has a requirement of two members from each Council district, and three selected from the city at-large. But the very nature of a youth engagement organization is that it is self-selective: it tends to attract youth who are already engaged. This is amplified in political youth outreach — in recruiting for the Tulsa Youth Council, a full 90% of applicants fit a particular mold: residing in more affluent parts of town; high GPAs; an inordinate amount of extracurricular involvement; and a history of political involvement.
These are great applicants, and I don’t want to downplay their accomplishments. But every great discussion we’ve had came from someone with a unique background — outside of the mold — voicing his or her opinion. The Youth Councilors were most engaged when they were being pushed outside of their comfort zones and coming to a more complex, complete picture of the city in which they lived. I strongly believe this is precisely what we want to accomplish as a municipal youth engagement organization. Our mission is met when they “graduate” from the organization with a deeper appreciation of their home: its successes, its challenges, and a knowledge — and passion — of how to make it a better place.
Foster Powerful Engagement that Carries an Impact
Finally, I believe that true youth engagement begins and ends with meaningful action. Too often youth organizations default to volunteering for other groups or holding a series of social events, or simply lack action altogether. This certainly happened with the Tulsa Youth Council. But as I realized a year in, this wasn’t because the members were lazy, or too distracted by other activities: it was because we weren’t offering a meaningful way for their passions to be acted on.
Justin Kits, an alum of the 2008 Youth Council and current journalism/politics student at The George Washington University, put it best: “The City Government deals with youth-specific issues, such as imposing curfews, but also many other issues that will effect the city for decades to come. The youth have a stake and should have a say in these issues. The Youth Council … is a way for youth to work toward the change they want to see in their communities.” As a relatively young professional myself, this purposeful engagement was something I unconsciously looked for as well: I left my hometown of Casper, WY, because I didn’t feel a connection to the city; I stayed in Tulsa because it afforded me genuine opportunities for involvement.
While young individuals can’t vote — and perhaps especially because they can’t — true political
engagement has to begin by providing a political voice. The Tulsa Youth Council’s Steering Committee members (and Tulsa’s City Councilors, who confirmed the ordinance revision) saw to this by including a mentorship model in the Youth Council’s powers. By finding a sponsoring City Councilor, a Youth Councilor can draft a City ordinance, advocate for its passage, and ultimately have it voted on by the City Council. We also provided genuine access to political figures: the Youth Council met with prominent members of the community like former Mayor Kathy Taylor and Superintendent Dr. Keith Ballard; and held a Mayoral candidate forum in late 2009 that was specifically youth-focused, inviting Tulsa’s youth community and drawing coverage by local media outlets.
Ultimately, the most important lesson I’ve learned is this: youth will rise to the occasion. It is then the duty, I believe, of municipal youth engagement activities and organizations to provide the occasion: allow youth to have a meaningful impact on their cities and their future homes, and watch them rise. I promise the investment will be worth it.