Involving Youth Early and Often: The Importance of Youth Participation

March 27, 2014

By Alysha Davis

With the increasing number of challenges facing both young people and cities today, it’s rewarding to see young people genuinely passionate about the health of their communities and dedicated to identifying ways in which to improve them.  NLC has long promoted youth civic engagement, and hosts a series of sessions for youth delegates as part of both of its annual conferences. More than 100 youth delegates (ages 15 – 18 years old) representing 19 different cities attended our annual Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., this year. 

For two dynamically engaging days, civic-minded youth learned how to become more involved in their communities and left with fresh insight on how to use their experience at the conference to ignite even more youth involvement back home in their cities and towns.  Youth delegates brimming with energy engaged in a variety of sessions on topics from youth activism to implementing sustainability projects in their cities.  These sessions provided them the opportunity to share their stories and testimonies, which highlighted the inter-connectedness of both the challenges and opportunities that youth in cities across the nation face.

Participating youth also had the chance to exchange ideas with elected officials from municipalities around the country.  Organized in a speed-dating format, the Youth Delegate and Elected Official networking event gave the youth delegates one-one-one time with local elected officials, allowing these local leaders to share their expertise and remind youth of the value they possess as a significant resource to their communities. Youth delegate Samuel Ilsley of Beaverton, Ore., described this opportunity to confer with elected officials as “probably the highlight of the trip” because he was “able to have a real conversation about a real issue.”  His statement echoed the sentiments of many of the other young attendees.

For many of these youth delegates, civic engagement is by no means a new concept. The City of Happy Valley, Ore., boasted multiple representatives from their youth council at the conference. These young people shared their work on reducing peer bullying in their community. For example, Bully Block Day allows high school students in Happy Valley youth to raise their voices against bullying through social media.

Many city leaders understand the importance of not only involving youth, but involving them early. Alderman Joe Davis of Milwaukee, Wis., a key figure in the creation of his city’s youth council, strongly advocates for the involvement of young people in city governance. As a member of the NLC Board of Directors, Alderman Davis made certain that the Milwaukee Youth Council members were present for the fruitful experience as they prepare for the role of tomorrow’s leaders.

Involving youth in governance practices not only encourages healthy development of young people and more effective public policies but also assists in building socially and politically aware, fully participating citizens that work to provide solutions to the issues that confront their communities.

For more information, please contact Alysha Davis at adavis@nlc.org.