Youth Voices Reach Lawmakers’ Ears

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While youth workers might see the value of seeking youth input on government policy as a no-brainer, the practice of developing youth advisory bodies for state legislatures and agencies has only recently begun to take hold. The number of councils and cabinets composed of youth has grown in recent years – but they are often on shaky ground, and it is difficult to gauge their success.

A place at their own table: A meeting of Washington’s state Legislative Youth Advisory Council.

Photo: Courtesy of Washington LYCAC

Some 140 local youth councils exist in 19 states and Washington, D.C., according to a recent report by the Washington-based Forum for Youth Investment (FYI). At least 10 states have state-level councils, although one of the grander experiments – the governor’s Youth Cabinet in Missouri – faded out of existence in 2005.

Developing a youth council is one thing; the especially difficult work is keeping it going and getting policymakers to pay attention. “Staffing and funding are the biggest issues,” says Thaddeus Ferber, program director for FYI.

The first such council was established in North Carolina in 1970, according to the FYI report, “Building Effective Youth Councils.” Most of the others have been created in the past few years.

Among the six keys to success identified in the report are securing long-term funding and support and establishing access for youth to public officials. Those were the biggest challenges to the state youth councils reviewed here.

Getting state funding for staff is especially difficult, says Judy Best, coordinator for the Washington State Senate Civic Education Program. Washington has only one half-time staff person officially engaged and funded to help its Legislative Youth Advisory Council, which Best works with regularly. “You need at least one person to organize this thing across the state,” she says.

Another challenge is keeping the young people interested. Quentin Wilson, former director of the Missouri Youth Cabinet, says the adult staff members must remain vigilant about recruiting, because the youth members quickly age out of the job.

New Mexico, for instance, has had a difficult time keeping its council at full strength, in part because it has so many slots: 112, making it the largest in the nation. On the other hand, the size of the council and its efforts to recruit nontraditional participants, such as foster youth and homeless teenagers, has given it greater diversity.

Best says the members “should apply, rather than be appointed, because that means they’re more interested.” (At some councils, elected officials appoint the members.)

The adults involved with the councils have to remain involved as well. The Missouri cabinet had youth representatives serving in each of the state agencies; former member Justin Stephan says it was difficult to make sure the head of each department was willing to communicate with the youth assigned to that department.

The Maine Legislative Youth Advisory Council nearly expired in its second year (2003), when the Legislature cut its funding from two years to one. The Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine reluctantly picked up the tab for the council that year. Then in 2004, the Maine Legislature passed a law allowing the council to be funded and staffed by the Office for Policy and Legal Research.

One key to success, says Best in Washington, is attracting a diverse group of youth. It’s easy to build a council made up only of youth who are incredibly interested in government and political careers and who are already active in civic matters. In Washington, where Best works with the Legislative Youth Advisory Council, members come from various interest groups and backgrounds; one member is from a group home. In North Carolina, the State Youth Council networks with such organizations as the NAACP and Hispanic youth groups in order to recruit more diverse representatives.

As seen on the following pages, most state youth advisory bodies don’t claim to have passed a lot of legislation. (In Maine, the council does draft legislation.)

Those involved say the councils’ achievements can’t be measured by that yardstick alone; they say they succeed whenever lawmakers and agency heads listen to the youths and learn from them.

In Missouri, Wilson believes one of the biggest benefits of youth councils is in their approach to positive youth development. “A youth council doesn’t focus so much on preventing bad outcomes as promoting good ones,” he says. He says it means a lot for kids to have a say about issues on which governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ferber of FYI says he knows of no long-term studies about the impact of youth councils on their participants.

Elizabeth Gaines, FYI program manager, says youth councils can have a huge impact on adults: “Whenever legislators get around bright young people, it’s really an education for the adults as well.”

Marta Dehmlow contributed to this report.