Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Many ways to influence policy

My goal in writing about youth participation in decision-making has always been to encourage the involvement of young people, especially disadvantaged youth, in public policy. My theory of change is that if we provide young people with training and create opportunities for them to work with adult decision-makers, such as school board and city council members, they will learn how to exert their own power and advocate for the needs of their communities.

Last weekend, however, I was reminded that we don't always need to create formal programs for young people to have an influence on policy. Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, offered a commentary about the growing support for gay marriage among politicians. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who co-sponsored a law to prevent same-sex marriage in 1998 when he was in the House of Representatives, now supports it because his son is gay. President Obama has said that his position on same-sex marriage is "evolving" because his daughters have friends with same-sex parents. In 2009 Dick Cheney came out in support of same-sex marriage because his daughter Mary has been in a committed same-sex relationship for many years.

While the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, is still on the books, Portman's change of heart brings us one step closer to a change in that policy. It also shows us that even without formal structures such as youth advisory councils, young people can and do influence adults who are close to them in important ways. Personal relationships are powerful.

One way we can help young people develop confidence in their own ability to influence powerful people is to remind them of their influence among the decision-makers they already know--their parents--and encourage them to pay attention to what works and what doesn't work when they are attempting to exert that influence.

By reminding young people that they have power, we help them learn to use it effectively. We also remind ourselves to listen.

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