Welcome to the Youth Impact Snapshots Series

December 2, 2013

read the snapshotsWhen young people have genuine opportunities and support to influence local and state policies, what happens?

What follows is a series of snapshots—short stories of the challenges, solutions and concrete impact that youth councils and commissions are having across the country.

Most of these advisory bodies are formally established by charter. Some are city- or county-wide, others operate at the state level advising governors and state legislators. Youth councils exist in rural, urban, suburban and tribal communities.

Over the past decade, there has been significant research into what makes for an effective and sustainable youth council—one through which diverse youth have genuine opportunities to engage with policymakers and influence local governance. We now know a lot about the best roles for adults and local organizations, how to fund councils, and how to institutionalize them so they are sustainable despite turnover in council staff or local government. For more on the optimal structure of youth councils, check out the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Authentic Youth Civic Engagement: A Guide for Municipal Leaders and from the Forum for Youth Investment and NLC, Building Effective Youth Councils. You can also check out NLC’s State Municipal League Youth Council Resources.

The following snapshots are not intended to be comprehensive investigations of councils’ structure or approach; they do not attempt to duplicate the excellent data resources noted above. Rather, these are intentionally small profiles of specific actions and results, designed to demonstrate the value of having young people involved in the policies that affect their lives.

To vet these snapshots, SparkAction staff conducted research and interviewed youth council members and the adults who staff the councils. Wherever possible, we also spoke to others involved—policymakers, local leaders and community members.

Through the interviews, several common themes emerged. Many youth councils report that a key challenge is ensuring that membership is diverse and represents the local community. In larger, rural areas the geography itself is a challenge, as is the cost of transportation to get members to local seats of government. Several councils told us they struggle with creating genuine and ongoing relationships with elected officials, and winning them over to the value of working with youth. Getting attention to youth-written legislation is another common challenge (one that Colorado found creative ways to work around).

Every successful youth council told us that providing appropriate training to youth is critical—both specific support to understand and engage in the local policymaking process and more general support with public speaking, organizing and running meetings, and following through on next steps. “Don’t skimp on training and mentoring,” more than one council staffer told us.

Several interviewees who pointed out the value of training and mentoring were careful to note that young people must be supported to take leadership roles and define priorities and approaches. Adult staff shouldn’t try to “run” the council but rather provide training and then get out of the way. 

We hope you enjoy these short snapshots—and that after reading them, you’ll agree that youth engagement in local governance is more than just a feel-good approach or a way to earn credit for college.  It can provide meaningful leadership development for young people and it can significantly improve local policies. And that makes good sense.

If you’ve got youth council or commission experiences to share with us, email us.

Read the Youth Impact Snapshots >>

SparkAction, an online journalism and advocacy platform to mobilize action by and for youth, provides organizational support to the youth-led Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council. We produced these snapshots thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.