A Finish Line in Sight for Youth Voice in Federal Policy?

August 6, 2012

Has the time come for genuine youth voice in federal policymaking?

When I first graduated from college and came to DC to work on youth issues, I came across the following quote from Jason Warren, a 17-year-old participant in Youth Force, a coalition of high school students in the South Bronx in New York City:

I cut it out and put it in my wallet.

In the years since, I have been privileged to spend time in both local arenas and, yes, at the White House. Sadly, Jason was right: by and large, adults do sit around and decide what “the problems” are for youth and what they need without ever consulting young people themselves. So I find myself frequently taking that quote out of my wallet and reading it to the people assembled.

But sometimes I don’t need to. Sometimes young people are at the table and I get to see better policies being made because of the unique perspectives and insights of the young people.

For several years now, a group of young people have been mounting a campaign to create a Presidential Youth Council -- which would bring young people with diverse backgrounds and experiences together to advise the president and cabinet secretaries as they make policy decisions affecting youth.

If they are successful, I may be able to retire Jason’s dog-eared quotation.

Building on Success

Can young people really have a meaningful voice in government? And will that lead to better policies? The experiences of a number of cities and states with youth councils indicate the answer is yes, when the councils are well-designed and supported.

Take New Mexico. Back in 2005, then-Governor Bill Richardson was faced with a tough decision: children’s advocates were pushing strongly for additional school-based health centers. But budget hawks -- pointing to existing community-based health clinics in the same regions as the schools -- told him this would be a wasteful, redundant expenditure.YOUTH ALLIANCE

He needed better insight to make his decision. So, he turned to the New Mexico Youth Alliance, a group of around 100 young people ages 14 to 24 who advised the governor on youth issues (the Alliance was created when the governor signed the state Youth Council Act into law two years earlier).

The young people explained that in their small communities, 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. They and their peers avoided the 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 increased the number of school-based health centers from 38 to 64, making at least one available in every county in the state.

Pretty great, huh?

The governor of New Mexico was 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 convenings of young people (often high school-aged, but sometimes including younger and older youth as well) who advise high-level policymakers. Check out, for example, Washington State’s Legislative Youth Advisory Council.

Still, such youth councils remain the exception rather than the rule in policymaking.

To date, there has never been a federal-level Youth Council, although several agencies and departments have mechanisms for young people to offer input on programs and services.

A Coordinated Push for a Federal Voice

Alex Wirth, 19, is one of the driving forces behind the movement to create a Presidential Youth Council. I first met Alex when he was in high school and serving as the chair of the Santa Fe Youth Council. To say that he is one of the most effective young people at advancing federal policy change misses the point. He is one of the most effective people ofany age at driving policy change; it just happens that he’s young.  

Young activists including Joe Hill and Jamira Burley from the Philadelphia Youth Commission, Thomas Senecal from the Maryland Youth Advisory Council, and DeRell Bonner from Mikva Challenge have also played important roles in getting this ball moving. Witness the 2010 youth-led visit to DC to meet with the White House and Congress (there’s even a video).  

So where are we now? 
Years after we began the call for a federal youth council, we’re close, but not yet over the finish line.

There have been victories, times when we succeeded in having youth heard in federal deliberations. For example, the 2011 National Youth Summit brought together 300 young people from across the country to meet with high-ranking White House staff, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (And we were pleased that Sec.Duncan answered the top-voted questions submitted by young people in SparkAction's “Ask Arne Duncan” competition.)

Most recently, SparkAction and our partners worked with Jon Bon Jovi and the White House Council on Community Solutions to launch the SparkOpportunity Challenge to find and support young people with the best ideas to serve disadvantaged youth in their communities. The Youth Leadership Institute’s Youth Ambassadors led the way.

Speaking of the White House Council on Community Solutions, its members—big names in business, philanthropy and entertainment—have called on the Obama administration to create a formal body (essentially a Presidential Youth Council, although they gave it a different name) “composed of young people that reflects a diversity of backgrounds and experience, including opportunity youth, to advise the President and his cabinet secretaries on the perspectives of young people, offer input on how to make federally funded youth programs more effective, and support activities by each department to better engage young people in the policymaking process.”

Several related efforts are also underway:

  • The Youth Leadership Institute is sustaining and growing its Youth Ambassadors program.
     
  • Dorothy Stoneman, the founder of YouthBuild USA, is leading efforts to respond to the White House Council on Community Solutions’ call for “Leading Organizations in the Nonprofit and Faith-based Sectors to Create a National Youth Council.” 
     
  • Youth organizer Jitu Brown from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization is bringing together activists such as those in the Alliance for Educational Justice  to call for a Grassroots Youth Caucus.

Hopefully, all of these efforts will succeed. If we want to authentically bring youth voice into federal policymaking, our best bet is to use not one but all of these approaches; working together both from within and outside of government, these councils could have major influence.

Which of these ideas will make it over the finish line? With the momentum growing, the chances are better than ever that all could succeed. Stay tuned – we will be covering these campaigns every step of the way.

WHAT CAN YOU DO RIGHT NOW?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Thaddeus Ferber is Vice President for Policy with the Forum for Youth Investment and co-founder of SparkAction. Reach him at thaddeus[@]forumfyi.org

 

 

Thaddeus Ferber

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Comments

It&;s an interesting idea to have a federal youth council. I think it would definitely be a valuable addition to our discourse and the example you give from New Mexico proves that this perspective can be very helpful rather than making policy decisions without clear information.

Not that this can&;t get worked out, but I wonder if it could eventually be used for something I would coin as "Youth-washing," or basically kind of using the Council politically like the "non-partisan" CBO (Congressional Budget Office) as corrobation of one&;s political perspective. Of course, it&;s not entirely clear what the council would do. Would it have policy positions? Would it be available for comment each time something newsworthy happens that impacts youth? (Pretty much every day). Where would it be housed and how would its members be selected / elected? These are more curiosity questions than criticisms of the idea by the way. To reiterate, I think it&;s a great idea.

All good questions. Especially in the current partisan climate, people tend to view everything through an ideological lens. As one person put it: "Policymakers will create a Youth Council if they think it will support their partisan agenda, or if they think it won&;t have any impact on policy." Since we are hoping for a structure that is not partisan, and yet does impact policy, we are swimming against the tide. But the good news is that young people are swimming with us -- most young people who we talk to have the same vision for a youth council as something that shouldn&;t be partisan ideology, and yet will make a real difference in the world.

Alex and all the people who are working with him to advance the Presidential Youth Council are going above and beyond to make sure it is seen as non-partisan. They are exploring ways to ensure that the members are selected by members of Congress from both parties; making sure any legislation would have bi-partisan co-sponsors, etc.

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