Cities from around the country of various sizes are implementing important actions that engage youth as an asset in COVID-19 responses. City leaders are committed to authentically engaging their community and find it especially challenging during the pandemic. Youths are a vital asset to cities, all the more so in these difficult times. When thinking about authentic youth engagement to help fill the gaps for cities, city leaders can ask:
- What youth am I engaging and who is missing from the table – particularly with the heightened communications demands during COVID-19?
- If I am engaging the same youth I usually do, is that representative of my community?
- How do I point to youth engagement in this moment and how do we do business differently in the future?
Leaders during this time, like Council President David James from Louisville, KY are reflecting and acting on these questions. In a conversation with NLC he lifted up the importance of reframing how youth are seen. He stressed the importance of having them to be at the table for current efforts and to be part of the recovery and long-term resiliency of the city.
Below are examples of cities engaging with young people as assets during the pandemic. Youth engage other youth to influence each other on safe distancing and anti-cyberbullying; provide input to local elected officials on city governance and programming; spread awareness about vital services (e.g., free meals) and positive coping strategies to city residents of all ages; and both inform and advocate for issues cities are tackling in the COVID-19 crisis.
Intentionality helps prioritize equity in youth engagement. In Brookland Park, MN the Boys and Young Men of Color (MBK) Program is continuing engagement via video conferencing and working with partners to increase virtual participation. Sharing the challenges they are facing due to their intersecting identities informed the speakers brought to the sessions. The program partnered with city and state-level agencies, and youth participants served as a resource for a survey the city is disseminating. In an effort to engage youth who are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, Baltimore, MD is posting social media of youth sharing information on free meal access, including in multiple languages on Instagram. Challenges will be different for Opportunity Youth who are disconnected from school and work as well as Justice involved youth. The PowerCorpsPHL in Philadelphia, are also utilizing technology to continue their service missions, supporting one another through virtual means and engaging their peers in conversation around COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
Municipalities can reach out to local, county and state partners to help prioritize youth engagement in defining how and what relief resources are provided to youth, now and throughout the recovery phase of COVID-19. Youth organizations such as after–school programs, community centers, and religious organizations will be looking for new ways to continue their engagement with youth and are potential partners for education and building awareness. Both Austin and Dallas, TX are continuing their youth councils virtually, including youth council members getting the word out about City of Dallas’ virtual townhall. The Miramar, FL Teen Council Advisory Board has been spreading awareness about proper conduct during the pandemic and how to remain safe via social media on their council Twitter page and reposting on their personal accounts.
Speaking to youth through youth is more impactful and gives the city a chance to highlight voices for issues all residents are facing, like health and mental health concerns. The Rochester, MN Youth Commission developed a social media tool, #BeWellCOVID, which is intended to bring positive coping and mental health strategies to people of all ages. Minnesota youth representatives are sharing tips for young people around the state as they adjust to remote learning and social distancing. The governor of Illinois collaborated with a health partner to host a youth town hall on Facebook live and utilized Twitter to get the word out about submitting questions. Relying exclusively on internet access to reach youth can overlook those who do not have internet access in a community. Many cities are shifting their school meal access to deliveries, adding engagement in non-digital ways to reach youth. For instance, Detroit, MI is providing a sketchbook filled with colorable drawings and art supplies with the meals.
Engaging youth to be advocates and peer leaders in the COVID–19 conversation can advance issues cities are already tackling. In Broken Arrow, OK the youth council’s project on young voter engagement is still in motion to ensure youth voice is represented in local elections. And in Miramar, FL the youth council has adapted their “Be Kind Day” by adding a focus on anti-cyberbullying as communities’ transition to virtual life. COVID-19 is amplifying the inequities long-experienced in cities, towns and villages. Santa Barbara, CA youth council is hosting a free virtual youth leadership summit in partnership with organizations around the community. Their breakout sessions span the topics of anti-vaping, indoor workouts, navigating fake news, and impact of physical distancing.
The pandemic has created even more need for pathways city leaders can connect and share with their residents. An underutilized resource is the youth in communities. Engaging local youth will not only help during the pandemic but support cities’ recovery and resilience for the long term.
About the Author
Mital Lyons-Warren is the Program Specialist for Economic Opportunity & Financial Empowerment within the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.