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.

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