Big Idea: Youth Councils

January 1, 2012

Although 12 states currently have invested in some type of Youth Council, no national youth council exists in the United States. Thaddeus Ferber, Vice President at the Forum for Youth Investment and co-founder of SparkAction describes how a national network of Youth Councils can positively affect policymaking decisions, and offers advice on how federal and state governments can create high quality teams of engaged youth.

This following is excerpted from Big Ideas: Game-Changers for Children published by First Focus. It is reprinted here with permission.

The governor of New Mexico was faced with a tough decision. On the one hand, Governor Richardson was hearing from children’s advocates who wanted him to create additional school-based health centers. On the other hand, budget hawks were telling him that the state was already paying for community-based health clinics in the same regions as the schools – so wouldn’t this be a wasteful, redundant expenditure?

He needed to talk to someone who could give him unique insight into this decision. So, he turned to the Statewide Youth Advisory Council (the New Mexico Youth Alliance) created by the Youth Council Act, which he had signed into law in 2003.
The young people explained to him that in the small communities they lived in, they couldn’t go anywhere near the community-based health clinics without fear of rumors quickly spreading that they were pregnant or had an STD. So they and their peers avoided going to the community clinics even if their medical needs had nothing to do with reproductive health. As a result, they missed out on sorely-needed services. The governor now had the information he needed to make his decision: he introduced legislation to increase the number of school-based health centers from 38 to 64, making at least one available in every county in the state. The legislation was passed in March 2005.
The governor of New Mexico is not alone in having access to young people who provide vital insights and perspectives into difficult policy decisions. At least 12 states and hundreds of localities have Youth Councils – officially sanctioned bodies of young people (often high school-aged, but sometimes including younger and older ages as well) who advise high-level policymakers.
And with good reason.
As the California Research Bureau (which provides nonpartisan research services to the governor and his staff, to both houses of the legislature, and to other state elected officials) found: “Adding young people’s voices to the policymaking process, and encouraging their participation in developing the policy that directly affects them, can result in more thoughtful and effective policy and programs.”
In the survey the bureau conducted of state-level policymakers in 2007, response was unanimous: 100 percent of respondents reported that youth either
must or should be included in policy activities that affect them. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that in 2003 the California Senate passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 40 (Chapter 133/Chesbro), which “resolved that the Legislature encourage individual Members of the Legislature to include local youth in their policymaking efforts.”
At least 93 countries, spanning the alphabet from Anguilla to Zimbabwe, have National Youth Councils, including Australia, Argentina, Chile, Finland, Greece, Iceland, India, Korea, Mexico, and Thailand.Germany has the German Federal Youth Council. Norway has the Norwegian Youth Council. Peru has the National Council of the Peruvian Youth. South Africa has the South African Youth Council. The United Kingdom’s British Youth Council supports a network of local youth councils across the United Kingdom.
These National Youth Councils are convened in turn by a number of international groups. The World Assembly of Youth was founded in 1949 as the international coordinating body of national youth councils. Currently, 93 National Youth Councils are members of the World Assembly of Youth. The European Youth Forum (an independent, democratic, youth-led platform representing 99 National Youth Councils and International Youth Organisations from across Europe), perhaps the best-established regional structure for youth councils, works to empower young people in European institutions, the Council of Europe, and the United Nations. Other regional associations of National Youth Councils include the Asian Youth Council, the Caribbean Youth Forum, the Forum for the Integration of Andean Youth, the Pacific Youth Council, the Arab Youth Union, the Pan-African Youth Union, and the African-Arab Youth Council.
Given the ubiquity of national youth councils around the world, we can be assured that the United States’ federal policymakers have their own youth council, right? 
Wrong.  The president doesn’t have access to a Youth Council to provide him the unique perspectives and vital insights necessary to make well-informed decisions. Nor do his secretaries. Nor does Congress. The United States does not have a National Youth Council, meaning that even the leaders of tiny countries such as Barbados and the Cook Islands have access to a critical perspective and vital insights that U.S. leaders do not.
It is both possible and advisable for the United States to create a National Youth Council.
This PDF is a chapter excerpted from Big Ideas: Game-Changers for Children published by First Focus. It is reprinted here with permission.

Check out SparkAction's Youth Impact content series, with snapshots of how local and state youth councils are impacting policy and governance.
Thaddeus Ferber