Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Providing opportunities for youth to participate in democracy

This piece was published as a guest commentary in today's Denver Post, under the title "Getting our youth to participate in democracy." Here's a link to the commentary. 

How do Americans learn to participate in democracy? If you answered “civics class” you get partial credit.

Most school districts, including DPS [Denver Public Schools], require one semester of civics for graduation. Students learn about the structure and functions of government and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But a recent report from the Carnegie Corporation, which funded the Colorado Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools between 2005-2007, indicates that because of increasing demands for accountability focused mainly on math and literacy, students have few opportunities to develop and practice civic skills such as identifying a problem, gathering evidence, reviewing and debating possible strategies and collaborating on solutions. They almost never learn the critical skill of budgeting.

Young people living in disadvantaged communities with lots of problems to solve have the most to gain by learning such skills. But if their schools can’t provide opportunities to acquire those skills, what other options do they have?

I recently returned from the United Kingdom, where I visited a number of organizations engaging mostly disadvantaged young people in community leadership and decision-making. An organization called “Young Advisors,” for example, trains young people all over the country aged 12 to 21 to serve as consultants in their local communities. These young people provide a “youth perspective” on local programs and policies, especially those aimed at young people.

Young Advisors begin by working for free but eventually charge for their services. YAs take a very professional approach to the work they do for their clients. Often teams evaluate services (such as counseling, libraries or job training) and provide written recommendations to service providers. Other projects completed by the two teams I met have included conducting social networking workshops for a local workforce development department, evaluating a national policy that allows police to disperse groups of more than two people, and making recommendations to local officials on how to make their meetings more accessible.

Another approach, called “participatory budgeting,” allows citizens to allocate a portion of a municipality’s budget. Community members determine funding priorities, and on a designated day service providers make brief presentations to the gathered citizens, who then rank their preferences and award the funds. In 2006 Newcastle, England set aside about $46,000 to be allocated by children and youth. In 2008 the city involved over 450 young people in allocating about $3.5 million to support services for at-risk children and youth.

Open-City, a London organization that educates the public and promotes dialog about the built environment, operates a campaign called “My City Too,” which helps young Londoners get their ideas about public spaces to decision-makers. Open-City staff reach out to young people across the city through surveys, forums and informal gatherings in public places. In 2008 a group of trained teen “ambassadors” gathered input from youth across the city and published a manifesto detailing their priorities for London’s public spaces. They then held a debate for mayoral candidates focusing on the manifesto.

Young people in Colorado are not without opportunities to participate in community decision-making. In Denver, for example, Project VOYCE engages students in education reform in a variety of ways. Many communities maintain youth advisory councils that are loosely connected to the city council. There is even a statewide group called the Colorado Youth Advisory Council, established in 2008 to offer input to the Legislature on issues affecting young people.

But most of these groups have little influence when it comes to policymaking, and the number of young people who can participate is limited. Virtually all such opportunities are unpaid, preventing many low-income youth from participating.

As the U.K. examples illustrate, however, young people can make meaningful contributions to decision-making in their communities if we are creative and farsighted enough to provide the opportunities and support for them to do so. It is in our long-term interest to create more such opportunities to enable all of our citizens to gain the knowledge, skills and confidence to effectively participate in the decisions that affect their (and our) families and communities.

Jeff Miller is Principal Consultant at Leading Now, which helps communities develop strategies to engage young people in decision-making and leadership. He served on the steering and executive committees of the Colorado Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

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