Youth Dialogues Inform and Develop Local Leaders
Youth Dialogues give teens an opportunity to hear varied perspectives, find common ground, and gain confidence to voice their opinions. Recent examples in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara highlight the potential of youth-led dialogues to create positive change in communities and to involve more numerous and diverse young people in public planning and decision-making.
Los Angeles Youth Roundtable Discussions
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa conducted a roundtable discussion with local youth in January 2009 to explore the issues facing young residents. Held at a school in South Los Angeles, the event involved about 55 teens from the neighborhood and local youth council.
Villaraigosa asked the youth council to plan more roundtable discussions in order to reach out to young people in other areas of the large city. A May 2009 roundtable planned and facilitated by youth council members engaged 20 youth from the San Fernando Valley. This meeting led to the idea of a city-wide dialogue that would help youth from all of L.A.’s neighborhoods learn about opportunities available to them through city and area nonprofit programs.
Youth dialogues enable youth commissions and councils to include more numerous and diverse youth voices in order to better provide city leaders with a complete and balanced youth perspective. Teens also gain practical skills when they play an active role in organizing, facilitating, and publicizing these efforts.
The Los Angeles Youth Council organized their first city-wide youth meeting on June 20th. The mayor’s office supported the youth council in planning and promoting the event, which brought 110 teens representing a range of neighborhoods and backgrounds to city hall on a Saturday morning.
Michele Segura, an impressively composed and eloquent youth commissioner, welcomed the packed audience, and explained that the purpose of the meeting was to share what was going on in their neighborhoods and to learn how they could make a contribution that would impact something important to them and improve their community. I was struck by what a composed and articulate speaker the city had hired to facilitate the meeting, and was surprised when I learned that Michelle was a 19 year old college student and the current youth representative to the city’s Commission for Children, Youth, and Their Families.
Participants then had a conversation with city Council Member Tom LaBonge, who shared his experiences as a former L.A. youth commissioner. He encouraged the teens to find their passion and to take advantage of the opportunity presented by being invited to a dialogue at city hall. The teens then separated into four groups by region to take part in roundtable dialogues that were ably facilitated by Michelle and other youth council members. As each group went around the circle and introduced themselves, it became apparent that this was a very diverse gathering of youth; some came from suburban magnet schools, while others were living in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities. The teens discussed what neighborhood issues were of the most concern to them, and what they would like to do to improve their communities.
If Michele is any indication of the leadership skills that LA youth council members acquire, the city should be well positioned to realize the brighter future envisioned by the youth who participated. She sees the roundtables as an introduction for youth to being involved in local government. “The real opportunity lies in following up with the youth who attended to make them feel they are a part of something meaningful, to connect them to networks of support, and to keep them coming back and having a voice in local government decisions,” says Segura. With the city facing difficult budget cuts that threaten youth recreation and education programs, youth council members have plenty of important issues to weigh in on.
Santa Barbara Youth Speak Out
In Santa Barbara, a youth council composed of 16 high school and four junior high students organizes “Youth Speak-Outs” twice a year. These forums give young people a chance to make their voice heard on important local issues that affect both youth and adults in the community. The youth council members collaborate with other area youth organizations and schools in order to draw hundreds of young people to these events who represent a broad cross section of the community. Topics have included teen violence, suicide, media’s influence on young people, graffiti, and teen drug and alcohol abuse. After each Youth Speak-Out, Youth Council members make a presentation to the Mayor, city council, and other relevant decision makers to let them know how youth in their community feel about an important local issue.
According to Teen Programs Supervisor Susan Young, the youth council has been very effective at creating positive change in their community. Youth council members have worked with local leaders to establish a teen center and skate park for their city. After a Speak-Out last year on teen drug and alcohol abuse, the youth council made a presentation to the city council asking them to consider passing a social host ordinance, which would hold adults who host parties with underage drinking legally responsible. The city council invited the youth council members to work with them to write the ordinance, and two youth council members joined a city council committee that considered the issue. When the ordinance came before the city council for final approval, the youth council made a presentation at the city council meeting in support of the ordinance. The city council voted unanimously to approve the social host ordinance in July of 2008.
“The main advantage of Youth Speak-Outs is they encourage young people to speak up in public about something they care about, and develop an ability and comfort with speaking out when they are given the opportunity to do so,” says Young. This message is making an impact on the youth council members, who recently attended a city council budget review meeting and successfully petitioned the council to reconsider funding cutbacks that would have impacted teen programs.
Young says that the most important outreach strategy is that youth are involved throughout the planning and outreach process. The teens pick topics that they are interested in and reach out to their peers by posting on their Facebook pages, making announcements at school and by inviting their friends. They also advise adult staff regarding promotional materials that will appeal to teens.
Benefits of Youth-led Dialogues
Both Los Angeles and Santa Barbara are engaging a growing number of youth in city decisions and developing future leaders through youth-led dialogues with adequate support from city staff and the attention of elected officials. Through such dialogues, youth councils are able to include a broader youth perspective in their recommendations to city leaders. These events also are an opportunity to recruit new members, to connect area teens to city and community services, to build the capacity of area youth to lead and participate in public meetings and to expose young people to new ideas and perspectives.
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