Citizens Help to Build a Youth Master Plan

Patrick Boyle

As more community leaders around the country see the value of creating a youth master plan, many of them wonder about the critical task of getting good public input—which is why what happened in Alexandria, Va., this past week is so inspiring.

More than 250 citizens turned out at two community forums to help Alexandria—a small city just south of Washington, D.C.—create its first Child and Youth Master Plan. The plan will serve as a blueprint for creating and improving services and supports for the city’s young people, from cradle to career.

Alexandria residents are excited about how a master plan can help. “I hope that we can all be strategic about what we’re doing, so that instead of 18 different groups doing 18 different things, that we’re all working toward a couple of central goals,” said one participant. See these video clips for more comments.

The city’s Children, Youth and Families Collaborative Commission is leading the creation of the master plan in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment. This short story explains why.  

Public input is critical. “Leaders need to hear from people on the ground about the issues and priorities in their communities, homes and schools,” said Elizabeth Gaines, the Forum's vice president for policy solutions. “And people need to see their priorities and ideas reflected in the plan in order for it to have validity in the eyes of the public.”

Getting Input

Alexandria, VA residents participate in a city-wide meeting to discuss an overarching plan for youth.

To get that input, the commission planned three public meetings, with city agencies and community organizations getting out the word through news releases, letters to the editor (see pages 10 and 12 here), Web postings, emails, and announcements in schools.

Those efforts paid off, with 270 people attending the first two meetings, one on a Saturday morning and the other on a Monday evening. The sessions included significant youth participation: About 50 middle- and high-school students attended the sessions and took an active role.

At each forum, adults and young people broke into workgroups to examine data about the city’s youth, identify priority issues, discuss the factors behind those issues and suggest solutions.

The residents were presented with data about the city’s young people in five broad outcome areas: academically and vocationally successful; physically safe and healthy; emotionally secure, hopeful and resilient; socially and civically engaged and empowered; and culturally competent and connected. They voted for which indicators were most important, then broke into workgroups, each focused on a specific indicator (such as truancy, substance abuse and participation in community activities). 

For example, the adults and teenagers who examined data on youth crime—such as vandalism, trespassing and status offenses—identified several primary and inter-related causes: a youth’s environment, peer pressure, disconnection from school, lack of home guidance and lack of involvement in constructive activities. “A lot of kids don’t even know what’s available or they don’t have access to it,” said one woman who works with troubled families.

They also discussed factors that steer young people away from trouble. One teen who participates in a leadership group pointed out the value of positive peer pressure, i.e., “being in a group with other people who want to be leaders and be successful.”

The work groups then explored solutions, including life skills and leadership training for young people; school orientation sessions with parents to explain what is expected of them to help their children succeed; greater collaboration among agencies and organizations to share resources and skills; and peer-to-peer mentoring.

The groups shared their discussions with reports to the full group. Watch some of the comments in video clips.

The next steps include another public forum, youth-focused gatherings and online input. The Forum for Youth Investment will help the city analyze all of the community input data (such as pinpointing the indicators and issues that citizens found most important), and summarize ideas about causes and solutions.

Find out more about youth master planning here, or contact Kiley Bednar at

Find out more about Alexandria’s youth master plan process on the City of Alexandria's website.

View as a playlist on YouTube >>

Patrick Boyle is the communications director for the Forum for Youth Investment, SparkAction's organizational home. Ready by 21 is a set of innovative strategies developed by the Forum for Youth Investment that helps communities and states improve the odds that all children and youth will be ready for college, work and life.