Kelley O’Brien is the Director of the North Carolina Civic Education Consortium, a program of the School of Government and one of the five North Carolina Civic Health Index partner organizations.
One key aspect of a community’s civic capital is its civil society: the groups and organizations that make our communities work. Previous posts have referenced that North Carolina’s 18-24 year olds are not participating in civil society at very high rates. At the same time, many communities are concerned about “brain drain”— losing the community’s best and brightest to cities, counties, and states that may offer more and better employment and social opportunities. When young people think about their future employment opportunities, they are not likely to consider local government as an option. This is not because all young people have considered and rejected a career in local government, but rather because they simply don’t know what local government does and the career opportunities it offers. Engaging young people in civil society and demonstrating that a community offers meaningful, rewarding career opportunities can not only lead to improved civic capital, but also improved human capital.
One North Carolina community has developed an innovative and collaborative program that is simultaneously engaging young people in civil society while introducing them to careers in local government. The Cabarrus 4-H Citizenship Focus program brings together the resources of Cooperative Extension, county government, and local high schools to teach youth about local government while providing real-world leadership experiences.
The program is the creation of Cooperative Extension Agent Heather Jones, who saw a need for a collaborative and concerted effort to reach out to Cabarrus County’s next generation of leaders. In 2009, Jones was involved in several discussions with lawmakers and county commissioners who were interested in increasing youth involvement in their communities. Soon after participating in these discussions, Jones participated in the statewide 4-H Citizenship Focus program in Raleigh and attended a Local Government Seminar hosted by the NC City & County Management Association in Kannapolis. As a result, Jones worked with city, county, and school leaders to establish Cabarrus 4-H Citizenship Focus.
Students participating in Cabarrus 4-H Citizenship Focus receive specialized classroom instruction on content, including the role of local government, as well as skills, including public speaking and written communication. They then apply this classroom instruction in field experiences with elected and appointed local government officials.
The first Cabarrus 4-H Citizenship Focus was launched in 2009. Twenty-nine community leaders, including mayors, school board members, commissioners, a councilman, county employees, and extension volunteers worked with 55 high school students. The results of the pilot program were extremely encouraging: 85% of the students reported they understand their civic responsibilities in the community; 56% reported being more confident talking with elected officials, and 44% reported that they will encourage adults they know to vote in local elections. In just two years, the program has grown from 55 students to over 800 students participating in fall 2010. One of the program’s most notable accomplishments has been exposing over 600 high school students to careers in local government though a district-wide local government career fair.
Through Heather Jones’ work, Cabarrus County has taken a proactive step to increase its civic and human capital. When governments, schools, and community organizations come together to create meaningful opportunities for youth, they are ultimately improving the future of their communities.
Jones was the 2011 citizen recipient of the NC Voter for Education’s Spectrum of Democracy Award.