However, it is unclear how much youth councils are actually influencing larger public policies implemented by adults in municipal government. While these programs are meant to encourage youth participation and investment in policymaking, Deutsch emphasizes that “responsibility [is] to show adults that they have changed how they make decisions and to document how the system has changed as a result of the youth council.” The success of youth climate council programs ultimately depends on the participants how they influence the skills and attitudes of, as well as whether councilors’ suggestions shape city policies and practices.
Success requires support and involvement
Youth councils can take many forms, but organizers say what makes them effective is transparency and clarity about the scope of their role as part of local government and the degree of autonomy and oversight they require. Deutsch says the development phase is critical to organizing a successful youth council because it requires a strong foundation and clearly defined roles and responsibilities from the start.
“Before starting the council, the city should have explained what the council members will do, how their ideas will be implemented, and what their power is in the city’s government and policy-making system,” Dosch said. .
On the San Antonio Mayor’s Youth Engagement Council, the Austin-based nonprofit EcoRise is responsible for much of this work. It facilitates the Youth Council with support from the Mayor’s Office, the Office of Sustainability, and the Holloman Price Foundation. EcoRise administrators select council members through an application process, and councilors serve for one academic year and attend at least two monthly meetings. San Antonio Council core components are standard and include a speaker series, student projects, and meetings with municipal leaders to give council members the opportunity to influence decision-making and hold leaders accountable for their action or inaction on climate change. Includes face time.
“Students are being directly connected not only to professionals and organizations, but also to members of the Office of Sustainability and the Mayor,” says Laura Fuller, Ecorise’s communications and design manager. “It was really powerful to watch last year. They were grilling [the mayor] And really want to know the answer and see accountability. “
In Oregon, the Portland Youth Climate Council is much more widespread. Members do not serve fixed terms, the recruitment process is informal, and access to municipal leaders is less direct. Since joining last year, 14-year-old Joel Guren says the group has discussed important issues, including updates to Portland’s Pedestrian Design Guide and the need to improve Portland’s urban tree canopy. However, without a strong support structure, Guren says the youth council struggles to reach the city’s leadership.
“This is a group that was created to advise the city council, but they forgot about us,” he said.
The Portland City Council did not respond to inquiries by press time.
Detajha Woodson, Youth-Nex’s program and outreach associate, is establishing a youth council in Charlottesville, Virginia, to integrate youth perspectives in developing youth-oriented programs at Youth-Nex. She hopes to establish a foundation for equity and inclusion of marginalized students, particularly students of color, who flow upward from the recruiting stage. Woodson designed an application with open-ended demographic questions and questions about what issues applicants want to address in their communities, allowing the Youth-Nex team to select councilors representing diverse communities and needs. will help to
“I want it to be very inclusive, very diverse,” she says.
Deutsch and Woodson agree that compensating students for their time is essential to creating an inclusive program because it shows students that their time is valued and makes it more possible for participants from low-income backgrounds to serve on the council. . But Woodson noted that paying students can be complicated when Social Security numbers or other forms of personal documentation are required — requiring that kind of information can exclude students based on their immigration status. or can stop
San Antonio council students will be compensated for the first time during the 2022-23 school year. Brittany Jaro, director of youth programs at EcoRise, says the stipend will be paid to students “in a way that best fits their needs to remove barriers to participation.” Ecorise also offers its Youth Council application materials in both English and Spanish to make them accessible to a larger number of potential applicants.
After joining a youth council, students also need a solid mental and emotional support structure to facilitate their work. Accommodations such as flexibility for counselors who work part-time jobs, have caregiving responsibilities, or need to take some time off to focus on coursework can encourage participation. Some youth council programs have built-in counseling services, but in San Antonio, Ecorise staff often fill this role in a less official capacity.
“When I was really impressed by the content of the program and felt very stressed [or] Because of all the things going on in my life, that’s when I reached out to Sharon [Huerta] And the other members, they’ve been really helpful and always there to support us,” said 16-year-old Carolyn McGuire.
Youth councils are active, but do city officials pay attention?
While the structure of the San Antonio program allows youth council members direct access to municipal leaders, Ecorise administrators say it has been difficult to measure the youth council’s influence on city decisions. During the first year of the program, students were tasked with developing policy proposals and presenting them to the City Council. Fuller says it’s not clear whether policymakers have incorporated students’ views into their work.
“I myself have arrived in the city to ask, ‘What is going on? What happened?’ And there was no response,” he said.
The San Antonio City Council did not respond to inquiries by press time.
Portland’s Youth Council is facing similar struggles, particularly over its relationship with other city officials. Despite Multnomah County and the City of Portland’s commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2050, which includes a clause to create a youth climate council, Guren says the council is treated like any other outside organization.
“I’d like it if they treated us as a part of things, not just another organization helping against climate change,” he said.
Despite the lack of response from city officials to the youth councils’ input, administrators are still moving forward and focusing on reforms. Before inaugurating its second cohort, EcoRise’s program administrators decided to switch gears. Huerta, an Ecorise education specialist, says this past academic year “there was more focus on research-based projects and more hands-on work.”
The decision was partly in response to city officials’ ambiguous response to last year’s policy proposals. EcoRise also sought to embrace Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), “an innovative approach to positive youth and community development based on principles of social justice that empowers youth to improve their lives, their communities, and institutions of purpose.” are trained to conduct systematic research for. to serve them.”
Deutsch says YPAR is a great tool for youth councils “because it both focuses on youth experiences and definitions of issues and engages them not only in researching issues, but in building potential solutions.”
The projects San Antonio’s Youth Councilors developed and implemented this year followed this model. They were grouped under the themes of community health, biodiversity, food security, transportation, and recycling and waste management. McGuire worked with four other youth councilors on the Community Health Team to develop a workshop to support vulnerable communities in Westside San Antonio.
“The main thing we did was distribute a survey and then get data from that to understand what the community needs,” he said. “We asked mostly open-ended questions. We wanted people to really tell us their experiences of living in the area and where they see their needs not being met. “
The food security team also designed their project to support underserved communities in Westside and Southside San Antonio. Symphony Britzke, 17, who worked on the project, says she understands the need for material support on the South Side because she lives there and has “seen [the need] herself.” For Britzke, the resources made available by the youth council made it possible for her to help her vulnerable neighbors. After researching community needs, the team collected food and hygiene product donations and created two “Little Free Pantries.” Modeled after Little Free Libraries, community members can pick up food or supplies from these stocked boxes in public parks that are maintained by local park staff.
Going forward, Huerta says EcoRise is looking at “reflections and lessons on how we can combine the first year, where we really focused on policy proposals, and this year, too, research-based action.” How will it work.”
The team hopes to improve communication between youth councilors and city administrators by inviting administrators to council meetings and starting a mentoring program for participating students with administrators, allowing them to build stronger relationships.
In Portland, the path forward is less clear, Guren says. Without an active link to city leadership or contacts like EcoRise, councilors have limited power. As Deutsch pointed out, adults must play an active role in making youth council programs work, and the initiative to improve communication will need to come from the city.
Empowering the next generation
Despite the challenges, youth climate councils in various forms have a significant impact on their student participants. Despite the frustration, Guren says he “really enjoys helping the climate movement” and that the Portland Youth Climate Council provides a place to connect with peers and work on issues that matter to him. McGuire also says the experience “really opened up my perspective on what environmental science can look like and my role in this whole climate crisis.”
For Britzke, who graduated last summer, her time at the San Antonio Youth Council shaped her career path. She has her heart set on a biology degree and plans to continue educating people about climate change-related issues. He got his first experience as a public speaker on the topic at an energy and water event at the Tobin Center earlier this year, thanks to connections at the Youth Council.
“This is the next generation,” says Fuller. “They’re going to continue to grow and continue these projects, maybe at a much faster pace than they would if they weren’t on the council, and that’s going to make a real difference.”
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