Cities: Tap Your Kids to Build Better Policies

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Sarah Zeller-BerkmanIt is an exciting time for those of us who work with young people in New York. The current administration and city council have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to young people, from providing universal pre-K and middle school after-school for all to expanding community schools. It is clear that our city wants all young people to thrive, regardless of ZIP code or city agency that touches their lives.

This commitment to young people is critical as youth are greatly impacted by policies related to public education, housing, juvenile justice and health care. Although young people are primary stakeholders, there is a glaring absence of explicit participation by a large and diverse cohort of youth in informing policies.

This absence may be one of the factors contributing to an alarming decrease of youth involvement in traditional forms of civic engagement. In response to this trend, concerned politicians and academics have recommended an “institutional turn.” This means that cities must shift their institutions, political processes and cultures to be more inclusive of young people. In addition, cities must make direct efforts to enhance young people’s civic skills, knowledge and behavior via civic education and opportunities for service.

What if cities across the country could fortify their commitment to greater equity for young people and create a culture of democratic engagement by including young people, not just as beneficiaries, but as co-creators of policy? What if we could use the infrastructure of youth councils that exist across cities (in youth programs, schools, community centers and city agencies), using a participatory action research approach and  mobile tech, to create a civic communication network between young people and their government?

A youth governing body in partnership with other municipal governing bodies could use cross-city analysis of data to inform their city-level youth policymaking. Just as importantly, local analysis of the data can be fed back to the local level to guide neighborhood-based youth policies, programs, services and action.

Once this civic communication infrastructure is set up, it can be activated to promote ongoing dialogue between young people and their policymakers. How? Short sets of questions can be asked periodically as policy changes happen in real time.

Young people can be architects of their cities’ future by being asked to envision such ideas as, “What would a child-friendly New York would look and feel like?” This infrastructure could also offer a rapid response system to mobilize young people in times of crisis.

Using a technology-based, intergenerational, participatory policy-making (TIPP) approach gives cities the opportunity to have policies, generated by evidence, coupled with a commitment to broad and diverse participation in both the process and product.

It can be used to enhance:

  • Who can participate in political processes,
  • How quickly and democratically the data can be made available on the ground to communities and up the policy trail to representatives, and
  • Who can access and analyze the data to inform policymaking and local action.

This model, in conjunction with other civic initiatives, creates the rich civic ecosystem our young people desire and deserve. From where I sit, in a city poised with promise for young people, it’s not if, it’s when this happens.

Sarah Zeller-Berkman, Ph.D., has spent the last 15 years as a practitioner, researcher, evaluator and capacity-builder in youth development. She recently launched the Intergenerational Change Initiative at the Public Science Project, CUNY Graduate Center, to support municipalities’ promotion of youth participation and intergenerational policymaking. She can be reached at szb@publicscienceproject.org.