I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard a policymaker talk about how rare it is to hear youth views on specific legislation and how important they find student perspectives. Hans Reimer, formerly with Rock the Vote and now a Montgomery County Councilmember in a Washington, DC suburb, remarked:
“It’s not very often we get students who are willing to say,`Here is something we want to see changed.’”
His reaction was prompted by several students who lobbied successfully to extend hours for food trucks because they wanted an alternative to school lunch.
Former DC City Council Chair Jim Graham called the testimony regarding foster care and youth shelters by students with the Young Women’s Project “brilliant” and a “driving force for change.”
Orlando Armstead with Critical Exposure told me about their advocacy for restorative justice to replace punitive discipline policies in DC schools:
“We show up at budget hearings. We were the only youth. We are still in high school. Our testimony was more powerful. We are living it every day. Speaking—our testimony that’s what keeps me moving for personal and systemic change.”
“Students are the most valuable and least consulted education-policy experts in America,” claims Amanda Ripley. She cites a 2012 OECD analysis of 65 countries that found school systems that routinely solicit feedback from students regarding curriculum, teachers or resources tend to be higher-performing and more equitable institutions.
Karen Pittman with the Forum for Youth Investment emphasizes “Adult change makers focused in shaping policy, improving services and building demand need to do more than engage young people in focus groups or invite a select few to offer advice…They should make sure that young people are engaged not just for the experience but for the results. They need to find effective ways to involve large numbers of youth in their core work.”
Yes, an intentional system in every city is needed to alert young people about upcoming debates and hearings to move beyond the often patronizing ‘youth voice’ slogan. Amid all the moaning about student apathy and our dysfunctional democracy, hearing perspectives and counter proposals by young people from all walks of life should be routine, not the anomaly that prevails.
What are some pragmatic and imaginative strategies to inform young people so they can weigh in on issues being considered by their school board and city council members? How can the word be spread beyond student government to non-traditional student leaders and to many community-based organizations that don’t have the staff to track what is happening in the public policy arena? Together let’s do a bit of community mapping and build a checklist:
- Youth groups
- Public libraries
- Rec centers
- Health clinics
- High school newspapers
- Social studies teachers
- Service learning coordinators
- Advocacy organizations
- Community coalitions
- Use 211 or 311 information portal & text alerts
Mail Chimp and other email systems might work for adults who collaborate with young people but not for most students. One initiative by the Montgomery County Council in Maryland called MADISON features the food truck legislation crafted by high school students with Councilmember Reimer. This service, created by OpenGov Foundation, is
“a free tool that helps elected officials and everyday Americans solve problems together. Elected officials post drafts of policy documents on the site so that you can weigh in and stay informed about the issues you care about most. Madison brings policymaking out into the open, and gives you a voice in your government and a way to hold it accountable.”
Kudos for the effort but judging from the traffic in terms of comments and only one bill that’s now law. What’s the secret besides cats for viral videos?