Engaging Youth in Your City

by Rebecca Heimstead, Mayor’s Youth Corps Coordinator, City of Tampa, Florida

How do we get this generation of young people engaged in their community?  Millennials (those born from the early 1980s through the early 2000s) have been described as lazy, narcissistic and prone to jump from job to job.  Raised by helicopter parents, they may be seen as self-centered and selfish.  On the flip side, some of the positive traits associated with this generation include their mission centered mentality, their collaborative nature and their flexibility.  They are also very tech savvy!  These positive traits can be called upon to serve your city and serve it well.

One might start by making community service mandatory for graduation but will that REALLY do it?  For some students the answer is yes.  If the service is interesting and meaningful perhaps that will ignite a fire in them and a passion to right a societal wrong. But is that enough?

What works better is service learning where the project is determined by the students through an investigation of the community’s social needs.  However, service learning is not often found in today’s schools since we moved to high stakes testing some years ago.  This approach only works for the few who stumble into a service learning class.

I think the BEST way that cities can purposefully engage young people in their community is through the establishment of a city youth council.  Youth councils are an effective way to show teens that they have a voice in city government.  A youth council empowers teens as they learn how local government works and they learn the language of “city speak”.  With this understanding, city council meetings and other civic events become accessible and relevant to them.  Youth council members learn to see their community through new eyes as they witness firsthand how the city is helping restore blighted neighborhoods, housing the homeless, keeping the water flowing through the taps and the garbage picked up.  Their willingness to collaborate and their passionate, mission orientated nature can be capitalized on as you help them learn how local government functions and how they can play an active part.  If they can imagine themselves making a difference, I believe that they will.  Youth councils ignite their imaginations, often inspiring teens to pursue careers in public service.

Serving on a youth council can be a transformational experience for teens as they work in partnership with adults who value their ideas and skills.  Council membership gives these emerging leaders an opportunity to learn and develop their leadership skills.  For your city, these young people are valuable sources of outside the box thinking and new ideas. (The experience also looks great on their college resumes, a perfect fit for these achievement oriented teens.)

Participating in a youth council can also create life-long voters as the youth understand the importance of their single vote and see firsthand how participatory government works.

We constantly talk about young people as being “future leaders” but how are they to learn to lead if not given both training and opportunities?

Want to know more about starting a youth council or youth commission in your city?  Join us at the National League of Cities Congress of Cities in Nashville, Tennessee November 4-7 to learn more!

About the author:

Rebecca Heimstead created the Mayor’s Youth Corps at the request of former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio on 2004.  She has worked with numerous cities to assist them in starting their own youth organizations and recently addressed the Louisiana Municipal League about the value of Youth Councils.  Her article Mayor’s Youth Corps and Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council: Yesterday’s Promise Creating Tomorrow’s Leaders appeared in the March/April issue of Quality Cities the publication of the Florida League of Cities.


Small Cities, Get Creative!

Small city leaders showed up by the hundreds last week in Austin. In the Texas capital known for its resourcefulness and creativity, small city officials were particularly vocal about their own imaginative approaches problem-solving and enterprising attitude towards today’s municipal challenges.

Ken Shetter, Mayor of Burleson, Texas, offered a few of his inspired ideas for bold small city officials who love their communities and want to make them even better:

1. Celebrate your city’s history. Small cities already have have strong identities, and by celebrating your city’s history, you can reinforce its identity in a fun way that engages the entire population. Honoring the past by preserving a historic block or throwing an anniversary festival will benefit the whole community, connecting generations and honing in on a powerful shared loyalty.

2. Get people walking. Small cities have the opportunity to become highly walkable, and you’ll have a big advantage if your residents can walk all over your city. Why? Millennials want to live in a place where they can walk. The Millennial Generation–the largest generation in history–is drawn to communities where they don’t need to own a car. To keep younger generations, your city must be easy to get around. It’s a great marketing opportunity to attract young people, and it doubles as a way to keep your current residents active and interested in their city.

3. Tell your city’s story on social media. Whether or not you personally use Facebook or Twitter, many of your residents get their information almost exclusively through these platforms. It can be a little intimidating to begin, but the opportunity is huge, so invest time and research into social media. Here’s the payoff: You have the chance to tell your city’s story through the voice of its leadership and residents–not by outsiders.

4. Make information available. Residents will be much more trusting and take more ownership of their city if they know it’s easy to get the information they want. Transparency is essential to small city leadership, where residents will be loyal if they know they can rely on their officials to communicate honestly. The city of Burleson, for instance, publishes its check register online. This way, residents can easily see where money is going. For any complaints, they get many more accolades.

5. Produce great neighborhoods. Adopt policies that will create beautiful, interesting, and safe neighborhoods. Think about aesthetics, design, and outdoor space. Great neighborhoods need to give children access to the outside, as childhood has moved inside. Kids play, grow, and learn in nature, so make sure your city’s youngest residents have plenty of parks to explore.

The Need for Networking

We hear it year after year: the networking opportunities at Congress of Cities are one of the top reasons to come to the conference. Think about it–2,000 officials from all four corners of the country gather under one roof, for the purpose of making their communities better places to live. Some attendees are brand new, with fresh enthusiasm and and unfailing optimism; some have decades of experience, with stories to tell for every stage of leadership.

Congress of Cities attendees know the power of collaboration. They know that game-changing ideas can come from a pre-session chat with the person next to them before the workshop begins. They know that asking a question over lunch in the Exposition Hall can spark a lively dialogue that will result in a solution to an issue both leaders are tackling. They know that their time spent in the Conference Connection Lounge may introduce them to a new social network. Congress of Cities delegates are pioneering the newest trend in organizations: people-centered leadership.

In his keynote speech, futurist Mike Walsh shared the way office culture is changing to become more humanity-focused, rather than technology-focused. Walsh urged the crowd to consider this approach to leadership. The future of cities is all about the human connection. Communities across the globe will overcome their hurdles by focusing first on their residents, then using systems and tools to help them meet challenges and solve problems.

Sharing ideas is more important than ever for leadership. In this age of crowdsourcing and ubiquitous data, it’s crucial to make and maintain connections with both like-minded and diverse groups of people. NLC offers so many ways to do this. We invite leaders to join a constituency group, where they meet other officials who share a similar background. We also have numerous policy committees, where leaders can work on the issues they are most passionate about. We have a variety of ways to network throughout the conference to ensure that attendees are exposed to completely different voices.

We encourage city leaders to take Congress of Cities home with them by preserving the relationships they’re forming this week in Austin. By giving each other ideas and encouraging each other to think in new ways, you’re already leading your community into the future.

#NLCATX Daily Recap, November 21st

This morning, in the heart of Texas’ creative capital, Ariel Schwartz from Fast Company and internet pioneer Steve Case discussed innovation during our second general session. Our surrounding city is a fantastic example of Steve Case’s advice: “Cities shouldn’t try to be Silicon Valley, but emphasize their own strengths to attract talent.” Austin’s great quality of life and cost-effective housing bring scores of energetic entrepreneurs to flourish in this welcoming city.

Schwartz moderated a lively panel discussion about trends in city innovation. She was joined by Mayor Bill Peduto, Mayor of Pittsburgh; Jenny Backus, Senior Policy Advisor/ Strategic Outreach & Partnership at Google; and Arun Sundararajan, Professor and NEC Faculty Fellow at NYU Stern and CUSP.

The Marketplace Fairness Phone Bank was in full-swing today, as NLC invited city leaders to call their members of Congress a call about passing MFA legislation as soon as possible. Reba Campbell, Deputy Executive Director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, urged her fellow city leaders to do what they can to get this bill passed. She says that Main Street businesses suffer when people order products online that they found at local shops. “They’re not putting taxes back into the community like they should be,” Reba explains.

So far, 74 city leaders have made calls to their members of Congress in support of this act, which is so crucial to the small businesses that make communities great. Make it a point to stop by the MFA desk tomorrow on the 4th floor of the Convention Center!

WIMG toasted to 40 years with a special luncheon, honoring female municipal officials for unique and outstanding achievement in local government. The WIMG Luncheon speaker, Laura Huffman, Texas State Director of The Nature Conservancy addressed the crowd. “There are three key elements to help empower local leaders to succeed and to think bigger about their work and vision,” she said. “Culture, conversation and collaboration are essential in helping to implement ideas for programs in cities and towns. We must consider going beyond our average planning for cities and expand our ideas more broadly to help strengthen governments.”

Our Twitter feed was full of attendees documenting the workshops today. One of the highlights was The Sharing Economy: Challenges and Opportunities in the Regulatory Environment. Speakers representing companies such as Uber and AirBNB discussed how communities are approaching these new platforms. Look up the hashtag #NLCATX on Twitter to see what your fellow attendees picked up from their sessions today, including some great photos of the mobile workshops around Austin.

This evening, State Leagues from all over the country hosted receptions throughout downtown Austin. Friday night is the perfect time to venture out with new friends to explore this incredible city, where live music and unforgettable food can be found on every corner!

Tweets of the Day




#NLCATX Daily Recap, November 20th

We had a lot going on today in Austin! The day started with a Young Elected Officials Breakfast, where emerging city leaders from across the country joined NLC leadership to network and discuss their shared experiences.

We celebrated achievements made by local elected officials in their efforts to build healthier communities and address childhood obesity as part of Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC). This special celebration event recognized the achievements of all communities participating in LMCTC. Congratulations to the communities awarded for their commitment to physical activity!

Congress of Cities officially kicked off this afternoon with the opening general session. Speakers discussed the future of cities, and what attendees need to be thinking about in the next few years. Mayor Becker urged the packed room to be open to change in order to move forward. “Be forward-thinking, or be left behind,” Becker asserted.

Our keynote speaker Mike Walsh took to the stage, with a fascinating presentation about how cities are already changing and how city leaders can prepare for these changes. He echoed the other speakers’ urging to stay open-minded, being open to new technology and new data available to cities.

City leaders left the room more prepared to welcome the inevitable challenges and opportunities that come with a changing urban landscape. They’re gearing up for what’s next by taking notes on best practices and emerging ideas at the various workshops throughout the week.

Earlier today, Castro and NLC Executive Director Clarence Anthony signed a historic MOU to work to end veteran homelessness in the very near future. To date, more than 255 cities, counties, and states are pledging to end veteran homelessness in their communities by 2015.


Please note: The Closing Celebration on Saturday is changing locations! The City of Austin has a fantastic party planned for our celebration. Unfortunately, the weather has a fantastic storm planned for Saturday night! So, we’ll be moving the party indoors. Get ready for wonderful Texas food and great live music—without the rain, wind, tents, and buses. The fun starts at 6:00 in Ballroom D on level 4.

Tweets of the Day




5 Fascinating Ways Our Cities Are Changing

Yesterday, futurist Mike Walsh took the stage at our Opening General Session. Walsh spends 300 days a year traveling the world for the best ideas that he can share with audiences so they can prepare for what’s next. At our conference, Walsh let city leaders in on ways that communities are changing globally:

1. Childhood is shaped by disruptive technology. The use of smartphones and tablets at an early age is transforming kids into a completely different generation–a generation that will create their own version of the internet. It’s a generation who will never know life before the advent of the worldwide web, and it will alter the cultural landscape of cities all over the world.

2. Younger generations don’t want to own things. The Sharing Economy (think: Uber, Lyft, AirBnB) is a shift in mindset. If you can use something without owning it, why make the commitment? That’s the modern approach to cars, music, even clothes. It’s a change in the way people get around cities and engage with their services.

3. The future of the office is about humanity, not technology. More and more, people are driven by people at their office, not just their daily work and equipment. Younger generations will often move to a new city for a job, and they’re banking on that job providing them with a new social network.

4. Businesses are seeking urban areas. Mike Walsh echoed Mayor Becker’s urging to city leaders: “Innovate, be open to change, be forward thinking, or be left behind.” Cities need to be receptive to creative, inventive entrepreneurs who are exploring new communities.

5. This is the age of data. With all the information city leaders have at their fingertips, it’s crucial that they bring data to life. To move forward, leaders can’t keep thinking “This is the way we’ve always done it.” They need to experiment, test their ideas, and use all the information they have to make smarter decisions.

#NLCATX Daily Recap, November 19th

What a great start to Congress of Cities! This morning, NLC welcomed city leaders from all across the nation to the vibrant–and sunny!–city of Austin to begin the conference.


The conference kicked off in full-force. Nine NLC University leadership training seminars educated ambitious attendees on topics ranging from historic preservation to public speaking, and nine mobile workshops introduced delegates to forward-thinking programs throughout Austin that city leaders can replicate in their home communities, such as affordable housing, green education, and an urban farm.

Attendees toured the Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment, a sustainable, transit-oriented community.

In the afternoon, NLC Policy and Advocacy Committees convened and took important steps in NLC’s governance process in advance of the Annual Business meeting taking place this Saturday.

This evening, city leaders gathered for the Welcome Reception, where they gathered ideas from exhibitors and made new connections in the impressive Exhibit Hall!

Tweets of the Day

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Join the conversation on Twitter using the conference hashtag #NLCATX!