Developing Your Community’s Civic Capital with Local Government Youth Councils

About the Author

CED Guest Author

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.

This is a second in a series of blog posts (click here for first post) about the 2010 North Carolina Civic Health Index, a study that used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey to assess the strengths and weaknesses of civic life in North Carolina. The study outlined several gaps in civic participation, most notably, that North Carolina’s Millennial generation (those born after 1981) is the least civically engaged of any age group in the state.

The low level of youth civic engagement among North Carolina’s Millennials is particularly disturbing within the context of a leadership pipeline for our communities and our state. If young people do not feel connected to their communities now, will they participate in civic life when they are older? And, what are the ramifications of a generation of unengaged residents? Who will fill the seats of our retiring public servants and elected officials?Local government youth councils are one mechanism for engaging young people in civic life now while also creating a pipeline of engaged residents and future leaders for your community. A local government youth council is an advisory body comprised of local young people (usually high school-aged) who provide advice and counsel to the local governing body and its affiliated advisory and regulatory boards, as well as other community organizations.

Youth councils enable young people to:

  • Communicate their concerns about local matters that affect them
  • Directly participate in local government
  • Make decisions and take action to improve their community

Youth councils enable local councils/boards of commissioners to:

  • Be more representative of the community as a whole
  • Gain insight regarding the community’s “young,” dynamic, and/or progressive perspective
  • Encourage youth to be more actively engaged in their communities
  • Improve services that directly affect young people
  • Create a pipeline of future leaders

North Carolina boasts many successful youth councils: Some are city-wide, some are county-wide, and some are joint city/county endeavors. Some youth councils are housed in Parks and Recreation Departments, some are overseen by a Public Information Officer, and some operate jointly with Cooperative Extension. There is no one model for a successful youth council. Before your locality establishes a youth council, it is important to first agree upon desired outcomes for the council and then create a structure that will enable your locality to achieve those outcomes. The North Carolina Civic Education Consortium has created a step-by-step guide for establishing a youth council. The guide includes a checklist to gauge whether a community is ready to establish a youth council, factors to consider in the composition of the council, and suggested activities for the council once it has been established.

If your community is not ready to formally establish a youth council, my next post will discuss other strategies for engaging youth in community decision-making.

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