In Oregon, Youth Help Shape County Living

youth bill of rights
SparkAction
Caitlin Johnson
December 5, 2013

In the city of Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding Multnomah County, the real-world impacts of youth engagement are almost too many to catalogue. This is no accident: youth engagement is guided by the first-in-the-nation Bill of Rights written by and for youth, and a measurable Action Plan. Over the years, genuine youth input into local policies has become the norm, not the exception—with free bus passes for students, better school-based health care, and antiviolence wins just a few of the resulting successes.

The Backbone: “Our Bill of Rights”

In 2006, Portland, Oregon became the first city in the U.S. to enact a Youth Bill of Rights written by children and youth. Within months, Multnomah County adopted the bill as well.

Our Bill of Rights, Children + Youth lays out the fundamental rights of youth in six areas: education, health, general well-being, recreation, youth voice, and family, home and community. It connects aspiration goals with concrete “rights”— for example, that youth “have the right to emotional well-being, and the right to an adequate support system,” and that students must be included on school boards.  It specifies that young people “have the right to follow our own spiritual path”— and that “we have the right to access adequate nutrition, and the community should provide for this right.”

“There’s something intoxicating about telling the mayor of your city what you think, and then seeing him take action to carry out your dream. It’s even more amazing when you get to work with his staff to accomplish your goals every single day,” says MYC alum Lisa Frank, who helped craft the Bill of Rights.

More than 4,000 young people were involved in the bill’s creation.  It began with a youth-led “constitutional convention” in the summer of 2006 that brought over 500 local youth together to write and ratify the concise document that would ultimately be adopted by local government.

Throughout the process, the Multnomah Youth Commission (MYC)—the official youth policy body for the city and county, made up of 27 young people ages 13 to 21—helped drive the work from idea to enactment.

Building in Accountability

To ensure that the Bill of Rights translates into measurable on-the-ground change, the MYC developed an Action Plan to guide the work of the Youth Commission.

When new youth commissioners are sworn in, the Bill of Rights and the Action Plan are re-evaluated to be sure they are still relevant and complete, and are updated as needed.  “This way, instead of a small group of youth deciding what the main policy issues should be each year, we have the voices of thousands of young people to determine policy priorities,” says Marc Fernandes, youth development coordinator for the county.

Each year, the issues that rise to the top are given priority attention. When the Bill of Rights was first enacted, access to health care and transit were the most common areas of concern among local youth. So the MYC prioritized these in their action plan. 

A Series of Wins

First, they focused on using youth input to reshape flagging school-based health centers so they would reach more young people. (See related Snapshot.)

Next, MYC members focused on making sure all young people had better, more affordable ways to get to and from school and to after-school activities and jobs. They pushed for the creation of a free bus pass for local students. Now, Portland public high school students have 24/7 access to free bus rides during the school year, saving families an estimated $3 million each year. (Get the YouthPASS story in this snapshot.)

The MYC is currently working to expand the program to every public middle and high school in the county, which will require new bus routes to be created.

This, of course, could benefit the larger community. And that’s something the MYC knows a lot about.

In 2011, spurred on by a record number of gang-involved shootings and, at the same time, a spate of anti-gay violence, the MYC launched its youth anti-violence project, which has resulted in a countywide collective impact effort that links schools and school administrators, faith groups, county and city government, and local nonprofits. The MYC has developed a comprehensive Youth Against Violence Action Planthat is part policy brief, part historical record of the work to date. It’s 100 percent a compelling and substantive narrative of the youth-led effort and its impacts, designed to help other youth across the country undertake similar work. (Read more about the Youth Against Violence work in this snapshot.)

"Our Bill of Rights: Children + Youth made me realize how powerful young people can be,” says Perla Alvarez, former MYC youth co-chair.  “The Bill of Rights gives us the right to voice our opinions in the decisions that impact our lives. …  I wish every single young person in Portland knew about this document."

Being involved with the MYC has lifelong resonance for many young alumni. “The MYC was a launch pad for various projects I have been a part of, and many achievements began in a room with my committee during a Sunday meeting, dreaming up solutions to issues important to use as youth,” says MYC alum Jackie Altamirano.  “It helped me know that as a young person of color, I mattered and my voice does have power.”

About the Multnomah Youth Commission

The Multnomah Youth Commission (MYC) is the official youth policy body for Multnomah County and the City of Portland, Oregon, comprising young people ages 13 to 21.

It started in 1996 as a small Multnomah County Youth Advisory Board to advise the county’s Commission on Children, Youth, Families & Community on issues that policymakers identified as priorities.  In 2002, youth members developed bylaws that shifted the group from an advisory board to a commission; the County Board approved the shift and the Multnomah Youth Commission was officially launched. Now, instead of reacting to policymakers’ goals, the members identify their own priorities and build campaigns to inform local policy.

Staffing: The MYC can have a maximum of 42 youth across the city and county. For the 2013-2014 session, the Commission includes 27 youth commissioners, supported by a full-time adult youth development coordinator, Marc Fernandes, a full-time AmeriCorps Vista worker, two part-time college students, and a part-time high school-age staff member. Official by-laws define the structure and function of the MYC.

Funding: The Youth Commission operates as a partnership between the county and the city of Portland under an intergovernmental agreement. It receives some county funds and has also raised over $300,000 in grants funders like the Penney Family Fund and StateFarm.

See also:  


This snapshot is part of SparkAction's Youth Impact series, short profiles of youth councils and commissions that are influencing local and state policies and practices. SparkAction is producing this series in partnership with the youth-led Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To suggest an impact story, please contact Caitlin Johnson, managing editor, at caitlin@sparkaction.org.

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