Nick Doctor Council Aide and Tulsa Youth Council Director Tulsa City Council

The Case for Youth Engagement The issue of youth engagement often falls on the back burner for most municipal governments — an item to be addressed when the larger issues clear off the plates of policymakers. Unfortunately, those plates never clear. And more often than not, including a city’s young adults in local government becomes a side issue passed from person to person — lacking continuity and follow-through to ensure these efforts grow, build upon past successes, and serve as a true opportunity for youth and an idea incubator for policymakers. It may become an issue raised occasionally by individual elected officials, but rarely does a youth engagement effort become ingrained within a governmental body and actively pursued. This is a loss for our next generation of leaders, and it comes with real consequences to municipalities. Cities that actively and consistently engage youth see a host of returns on their investment: a higher percentage of youth meeting developmental milestones; increased voter turnout and civic participation among young adults and across demographic groups; a source for new strategies and unconventional problem-solving; and a sense of community ownership that decreases brain drain and retains local talent. Perhaps most importantly, these tangible benefits act as markers for healthy cities: cities where businesses want to relocate and families want to raise their children, and cities whose citizens enjoy a higher quality of life. In an increasingly globalized world — where geography and distance matter less and less for job opportunities — young professionals instead consider the quality of life offered by the cities where they are considering living. Without meaningful youth engagement strategies, municipalities miss out on these benefits, and slip in their regional, national, and international competitive advantage. In this article, I want to focus on two things: first, a summary of the Tulsa Youth Council; and second, a set of “best practices” for municipal youth engagement, taken from the successes and failures we’ve seen in Tulsa in its youth engagement efforts. Tulsa’s Youth Council

weaknesses. Unfortunately. and little knowledge of their role in the larger political scene. Steering Committee members then shaped how they were met and incorporated goals that reflected the issues most important to them. I created a steering committee of ten Tulsa high school students to examine the Youth Council as a whole. and youth organizations should be no different. One of the key objectives in creating any new initiative is to create “buy-in” from area stakeholders. Intentionally crafted to alleviate the weaknesses of the initial Youth Council model. I joined the Tulsa City Council in 2008. While this vision marked a breakthrough in the relationship between Tulsa’s youth and City of Tulsa officials. opportunities. members also gained an appreciation for municipal political structures. and reforming the program to reflect those goals. assessed the organization’s strengths. participation by members soon began to slip — mainly due to a lack of focus. determined what they wanted to accomplish — and how they were going to do it. and was charged with making the Youth Council successful. ran a SWOT analysis of their own organization. To do this. this created a challenge for the Tulsa Youth Council: youth members had no role in its creation. impact. and established a work plan for the next three years. and threats.The Tulsa Youth Council was initially formed in 2000 to solicit youth opinion on local governance and create an avenue for youth representation in local policymaking. and as a result felt little connection to its mission. or canceling the program. The Rules of Engagement — Best Practices for Municipal Youth Engagement Include Youth from the Ground Level The creation of a youth council or other youth engagement strategy is often first initiated by a group of policymakers or elected officials. By engaging in a comprehensive strategic plan. Rather than immediately recruiting Youth Councilors. The 2009-2010 Youth Council was the first to act on this vision. and ultimately provide a renewed focus and strategic vision for the program. and worked to both implement those goals and raise the organization’s profile within the community. Tulsa City Councilors approved a steering committee charged to balance the goals of Tulsa’s municipal government with those of the Youth Councilors. the Steering Committee engaged in a comprehensive strategic planning process that incorporated goals of the city and youth members. and dedicated resources. I came to the table with a set of goals from the City’s perspective. . and then transmitted to youth as a directive. no voice in how it operated.

Be Open to New Means of Communication It’s often joked that this youngest generation is the “Facebook” or “MySpace” generation. and allowed them to quickly spread the word among their peers. that’s true: youth today are far more comfortable communicating online than their previous generations. in my communication directly with Youth Councilors. and doesn’t know how to properly communicate with one another in a face-to-face situation. Twitter. As a specific example. I experienced some challenges in carrying this momentum forward. we plan to guide Youth Councilors through a review of the initial strategic plan and the creation of a yearlong work program that meets earlier goals. and second. including lack of participation and challenges keeping everyone engaged. In my experience. however. While this differed from the conventional email or phone call. and invested in its long-term success. Many of the old problems began to seep in. In the second year. This played itself out in several ways: first. through our outreach to the youth community at large.This “buy in” was instrumental in our future recruitment and outreach. brought in others from the youth community. this is a far greater strength than it is a weakness. and have an instinctive knowledge of the rules for doing so. Because they felt ownership over the organization. and I think a large part of it was a result of not taking the time to generate this “buy in” for a new group of members. and YouTube to promote the accomplishments of the Youth Council and broadcast them to a wide network of individuals. this brought our message directly to the youth in a context many of them already frequented. It also provided a great way to rally adults in Tulsa to the cause and let others know about our organization. For the 2010-2011 year. but in a way that utilizes new individuals’ talents and interests. much of my communication with Youth Councilors outside of our weekly meetings was through text messages. I often got instant responses far sooner than I would have from email — members always had their phone on them. Much like an email newsletter. and the expectation to respond immediately to texts ensured I didn’t have to wait for everyone to find time to check their inboxes. Bring Diverse Backgrounds to the Table . On a larger scale. and offers municipalities with extra tools in engaging youth — and doing so meaningfully. they worked harder in promoting it. we also used Facebook. To some degree.

and a history of political involvement. and is reinforced by a selection process that intentionally creates a group with unique — and often conflicting — perspectives and diverse life experiences. it was an understandably hot issue. intentional effort. analyzing the value and feasibility of youth on City commissions. For ten individuals preparing for college. The Youth Councilors were most engaged when they were being pushed outside of their comfort zones and coming to a more complex. and discussing educational initiatives with Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. teachers and leaders of private schools in town. complete picture of the city in which they lived. the best nights have consistently been those where the group hit on an issue they were passionate about. Youth Leadership Tulsa. This is amplified in political youth outreach — in recruiting for the Tulsa Youth Council. The Tulsa Youth Council regularly sends applications and program materials to Tulsa Public School teachers and administrators. One of my favorite nights involved a two-hour conversation on affirmative action. and non-traditional organizations serving youth: Tulsa Youth Services. The central key to all of these memorable nights was a diversity of opinion on the Youth Council. unique channels. and this is a step in the right direction. I strongly believe this is precisely what we want to accomplish as a municipal youth engagement .Throughout two years of weekly Youth Council meetings. to name a few. Many youth councils have a geographic diversity requirement. and the Mental Health Association of Tulsa. Creating this diversity in youth organizations requires a concerted. This has not only increased our application numbers – it’s enriched our program. and I don’t want to downplay their accomplishments. but most importantly. and three selected from the city atlarge. they all approached the subject from different perspectives and contributed elements from their own backgrounds into the conversation. high GPAs. But these conversations have frequently been about larger social issues as well. religious groups. an inordinate amount of extracurricular involvement. It begins with a recruitment process that advertises heavily in multiple. a full 90% of applicants fit a particular mold: residing in more affluent parts of town. But the very nature of a youth engagement organization is that it is self-selective: it tends to attract youth who are already engaged. The Tulsa Youth Council has a requirement of two members from each Council district. Often these were based in municipal politics: debating the merits behind the new downtown ballpark. Keith Ballard and then-Mayor Kathy Taylor. But every great discussion we’ve had came from someone with a unique background — outside of the mold — voicing his or her opinion. These are great applicants.

but also many other issues that will effect the city for decades to come. its challenges. who confirmed the ordinance revision) saw to this by including a mentorship model in the Youth Council’s powers. . I promise the investment will be worth it. a Youth Councilor can draft a City ordinance. We also provided genuine access to political figures: the Youth Council met with prominent members of the community like former Mayor Kathy Taylor and Superintendent Dr. this wasn’t because the members were lazy. The Youth Council … is a way for youth to work toward the change they want to see in their communities. inviting Tulsa’s youth community and drawing coverage by local media outlets.organization. Foster Powerful Engagement that Carries an Impact Finally. or simply lack action altogether. and ultimately have it voted on by the City Council. such as imposing curfews. Our mission is met when they “graduate” from the organization with a deeper appreciation of their home: its successes. I believe. I believe that true youth engagement begins and ends with meaningful action. advocate for its passage. The Tulsa Youth Council’s Steering Committee members (and Tulsa’s City Councilors. of municipal youth engagement activities and organizations to provide the occasion: allow youth to have a meaningful impact on their cities and their future homes. WY. The youth have a stake and should have a say in these issues. Justin Kits. Ultimately. I stayed in Tulsa because it afforded me genuine opportunities for involvement. and a knowledge — and passion — of how to make it a better place. this purposeful engagement was something I unconsciously looked for as well: I left my hometown of Casper. an alum of the 2008 Youth Council and current journalism/politics student at The George Washington University. It is then the duty. But as I realized a year in. This certainly happened with the Tulsa Youth Council. and watch them rise. Keith Ballard. and held a Mayoral candidate forum in late 2009 that was specifically youth-focused. By finding a sponsoring City Councilor. While young individuals can’t vote — and perhaps especially because they can’t — true political engagement has to begin by providing a political voice. Too often youth organizations default to volunteering for other groups or holding a series of social events. because I didn’t feel a connection to the city. or too distracted by other activities: it was because we weren’t offering a meaningful way for their passions to be acted on. the most important lesson I’ve learned is this: youth will rise to the occasion.” As a relatively young professional myself. put it best: “The City Government deals with youth-specific issues.

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