The Value of Engaging Younger Citizens in Municipal Meetings

How old were Aaron Burr, Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in 1776?

The Answer: 20, 24, 33, 18

Revolutionary War scholar Todd Andrlik concludes that the Founding Fathers are more aptly termed “the founding teenagers and 20-somethings.” The United Nations (UN) recently interviewed 4,000 18- to 29-year-olds to address a “growing trust gap between young people and their government, multilateral organizations and civil society.” It all starts at town hall. Engaging younger citizens in municipal meetings benefits the entire community.

Meetings address a broader array of issues. Younger citizens often focus on slightly different issues than their older peers – either because they’re affected more by those issues (e.g., school shootings) or because their education made them value those issues more (e.g., environmentalism).

Be prepared to face issues that you’ve ignored. You might also find a once-safe majority challenged for the first time. Once there were young adults in the room, Takoma Park, MD, decided to lower the voting age for city elections. Also in Takoma Park, the middle-aged crowd just didn’t get its way when younger people had a voice. Like many cities, it formed a parallel Youth Council for teenagers and gave the body an advisory role at the “real” municipal meetings. A journalist reports a newfound challenge to the traditional consensus: “Adults have discussed recalling officials over the prospect of adding a two-story mixed-use building. The Youth Council, on the other hand, has flatly stated its support.” Be prepared to talk about gendered pronouns as much as you talk about financial solvency.

Younger constituents bring fresh strategies and ideas. Parkland high school senior Ryan Deitch asked Florida Senator Marco Rubio point blank in a CNN Town Hall if he would promise to turn down NRA money. The older adults in the room expressed their gratitude to him. He replied: “We would like to know why we have to be the ones to do this. Why do we have to speak out to the state Capitol?” Maybe advancing years make us fearful or corrupt; whatever the reason, younger citizens sometimes bring new tactics to the table and imagine novel possibilities.

A larger segment of the population supports their policies. If younger adults have ownership of an action plan, that plan will not feel like an imposition by suspicious, alien authorities. It’s one thing if an older generation announces a higher alcohol tax. Pushback from 30-year-olds is likely. It’s something else entirely if 30-year-olds have wrestled with the problem of balancing the budget and concluded that an alcohol tax was the fairest solution.

More people means more energy. The younger attendees not only boost compliance and publicity; they also add raw energy to the town’s or county’s projects. For instance, younger people typically use public space a great deal. For example, they have contributed both ideas and labor to build an award-winning skating park in Fremantle, Western Australia; the Lotus Gardens in Mumbai, India; and “The Alley Project” (TAP) in Detroit, MI.

A community proves it’s dedicated to “diversity.” The term often sends the mind to categories of race or gender, but 1.8 billion people worldwide are between the ages of 18 and 29 (UN). Ageism as a form of discrimination is alive and well. True “inclusion” addresses age bias as well as the usual suspects. Watchdogs keep track of how friendly various communities are to young adults. The reputation that you build matters when you look for young families, say, to move to your area.

The younger members develop citizenship skills that enrich democracy. In August 2008, the new president of the Florida League of Cities cited extensive studies showing that civics education is lagging behind other fields in public schools. Recent studies show the problem persisting. Younger citizens may reach the age of 18 simply not knowing how the most basic civic processes work.

In municipal meetings, they learn by doing. The know-how and leadership that they develop will continue to bolster the democratic process for the many years that still lie ahead of them. In a country with declining voter turnout, participation in municipal meetings also makes younger citizens more likely to vote in the future.

Quality of life improves for a key demographic. Studying citizens below the voting age, the National League of Cities has found that youth engagement in civic affairs increases the indicators of well-being among the young. The Russian Federation to the United Nations went so far as to testify that involving young people in shaping solutions to social problems kept many from the influence of bad actors, such as terrorist organizations.

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What can your community do to reap these myriad benefits? To meet younger citizens where they live, use technology. The usual set-up of your municipal meetings is likely to be a three-hour diatribe in a smelly high school gym – with the agenda posted on a bulletin board outside the public library and the proceedings aired on C-SPAN. What adjectives describe that experience? “Dynamic,” “cool” and “sleek” do not come to mind.

Now imagine a one-hour, in-person meeting that discusses public input previously provided through an online PechaKucha event. The meeting notice and the agenda appear on the same online portal with streaming video of the footage of the last meeting. Suddenly, “dynamic,” “cool” and “sleek” fit the bill. The digital generation has begun participating for the first time in many cities’ civic processes as communities use technology to reframe the meeting experience from soup to nuts.

Drawing younger participants into municipal meetings benefits the entire community. Changing preconceived notions of meeting formats has tapped the wellspring of advantages for many cities. Yours can be one of them. To attract younger constituents, build a virtual presence and they will come.

Sources:

Baker, William H.; Addams, H. Lon; and Davis, Brian, “Critical Factors for Enhancing Municipal Public Hearings,” http://www.thecyberhood.net/documents/papers/baker05.pdf

CityLab, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/07/takoma-park-youth-council/562877/

Clift, Liz, “Town Hall Meetings Empower Youth,” Feb. 24, 2014. at tolerance.org.

Crapps, Kriston, “What if the Teen City Council is Better than the Grownup One?”

Friday Night Live, “A Powerful Force: A Guide to Youth-Led Town Hall Meetings”

At: http://www.fridaynightlive.org/wp-content/uploads/A-Guide-to-Youth-Led-THMs-potential-final-sans-quote-Formatted.pdf

Girl Scouts, “The New Cool Hangout? City Council Meetings” https://www.girlscouts.org/en/raising-girls/leadership/civic-action/guide-to-city-council-meetings.html

Grinberg, Emanuella and Almasy, Steve. “Student at Town Hall to Washington, NRA: Guns are the Problem. Do Something.” February 22, 2018 at cnn.com

Hilleary, Alex, “This Is Why Your City Council Attendance is Low,” Boxcast July 11, 2018. At: https://www.boxcast.com/blog/this-is-why-your-city-council-meeting-attendance-is-lowore-Topics/Governance/Citizen-Participation-and-Engagement/Public-Participation-in-Council-Commission-Meeting.aspx

Military History Now, “The Young and the Restless – Mag Lists the Surprising Ages of Revolutionary Heroes,” August 23, 2013 at: https://militaryhistorynow.com/2013/08/23/the-young-and-the-restless-the-astonishing-ages-of-the-revolutions-key-figures/

MRSC, “Youth Participation in Local Government” http://mrsc.org/Home/Explore-Topics/Governance/Citizen-Participation-and-Engagement/Youth-Participation-in-Local-Government.aspx

National League of Cities, NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, “Authentic Youth Civic Engagement: A Guide for Municipal Leaders” 2010 at http://www.nlc.org/sites/default/files/2017-05/authentic-youth-engagement-gid-jul10.pdf

United Nations, “Young People Powerful Agents for Resolving, Preventing Conflict, Speakers Tell Security Council,” April 23, 2018. At https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13312.doc.htm


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