A healthy democracy requires equitable and just access to participation for all members of our community, especially our youth. As much as any other demographic, young people have an enormous stake in the decisions that shape the laws, policies, and practices of our country, particularly as it relates to ongoing and fraught discussions about education, healthcare, environment, immigration, foreign policy, and gun violence. Young people, as they have throughout recent U.S. history, are often on the front lines of activism, demanding more inclusive and equitable forms of democratic engagement for themselves and others. Unfortunately, youth are often not sufficiently engaged by civic apparatuses, and their perspectives and concerns go unheard, their problems unaddressed, and our community loses a significant source for change. However, over the past two decades, there has been an increased focus on youth engagement, with communities across the U.S. creating meaningful civic engagement opportunities for young people that offer them a real stake in community decision-making.
Barriers to Youth Civic Engagement
Despite our discussion of them in the aggregate, youth are an exceptionally diverse group of people who have all the perspectives, challenges, and experiences of adults with a small fraction of the power. Because of this, there exist barriers to the civic engagement and participation of young people that they cannot overcome on their own. These challenges and barriers are often different than what an adult might expect or identify. For this reason, it is important for us to understand youth-identified barriers1 to civic engagement, and what we can do to reduce or eliminate them.
- Experience barriers – When experience is used as a benchmark for the significance an idea or perspective holds, it necessarily excludes younger people. While experience is a valuable part of the individual and community experience, it should not be overemphasized to the point that it prevents young people from meaningfully contributing perspectives and solutions, even if the perspective has been heard or the solution tried in the past.
- Scheduling conflicts – The schedules and obligations of young people are often not given the same degree of gravity as their adult counterparts. Young people have jobs, academic work, and may also be caretakers. Communities seeking to support youth civic engagement should provide the same degree of notice for young people as they do for adults, giving them time to prioritize community engagement.
- Voice in meetings – Young people should have a voice in meetings about issues even when the subject does not appear to be youth-related. Young people, like their adult counterparts, are thoughtful and creative people who are capable of coming up with novel solutions.
- Real, and perceived2, diversity gaps between younger and older generations – Today’s youth are as diverse, in terms of identity and experience, as they have been at any point in our nation’s past. In seeking to incorporate youth in civic engagement activities, community leaders are encouraged to expand recruitment and outreach beyond familiar networks.
- Transportation – For age-related or socio-economic reasons, young people may often lack access to reliable or self-directed means of transportation. To support young engagement, community leaders should consider scheduling meetings in places that are easily accessible by public transportation and publish known routes. For ongoing leadership opportunities, such as internships or committee memberships, support for reliable transportation of young people should be a part of the planning process.
- Under sampling – Given how diverse young people are in terms of identity and experience, community leaders and organizations are encouraged to recruit broadly to ensure that the same group of young people are not being disproportionately given all of the young leadership and engagement opportunities.
- Stereotypes and assumptions – Adults seeking to engage youth should assume that they are interested and that they have a valuable perspective and experience to share. Assumptions of youth apathy or a lack of interest often prevent youth engagement opportunities from ever being developed.
- Lack of early, and meaningful participation – Youth often report not being asked to be involved in community decision-making until after adults have created a specific set of solutions or choices for which they want feedback. Instead, youth should be incorporated into decision-making processes early, ideally during the identification of the problem or challenge.
Many communities across the United States have sought to reduce barriers to youth civic participation, giving young people a meaningful stake in state, local, and community policy development and decision-making. While there are numerous examples, some of the most significant include:
- Teen (Youth) court – Teen courts are opportunities where teens, charged with certain offenses, are sentenced by a jury of similarly aged peers. Youth courts are an alternative sentencing program that attempts to support youth community norm building, increase youth leadership, and reduce youth recidivism. More information about youth courts, including resources and grant funding ideas, is available from the National Association of Youth Courts.
- Legislative Youth Advisory Councils – Since 2002, at least twelve states have established legislative youth advisory councils. The advisory councils, composed of young people aged 14-22, seek to bring attention to, to discuss, and to inform on topics of concern to youth now and in the future. Legislative youth advisory councils are formally appointed and may hold public hearings or make formal recommendations to the legislature.
- Lowering the voting age in local elections – In 2013, Takoma Park, Maryland lowered the voting age in local elections to 16. Since then, several other cities have also lowered the voting age to 16 for state and school board elections. While opponents of lowering the voting age argue that young people do not have the time or inclination to be informed voters, Takoma Park has found that people aged 16 and 17 voted at twice the rate of people over the age of 18, and these voters were more likely to continue voting as they got older. More information about youth suffrage, including research and resources, is available from Fair Vote.
- Youth Participatory Budgeting – Youth participatory budgeting is an inclusive democratic practice in which young people decide how to spend part of a municipal budget. Participatory budgeting has been shown to increase interest and participation among young people in local government and support the early development of democratic practices. More information about youth participatory budgeting is available via a National Civic League-hosted webinar.
The National Civic League seeks to highlight and uplift promising practices for supporting youth civic engagement. If you are aware of a community creating meaningful opportunities for youth civic engagement, we would encourage you to share the story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Candice Williams, Equity and Inclusion Program Director, National Civic League.
1 The National Civic League conducted a focus group with a highly diverse, non-representative sample of young people to better understand barriers to youth civic engagement. The challenges and barriers shared here, as well as best practices/community examples, result from the information shared by participants in that focus group.
2 It is important to acknowledge that older generations may often be perceived as being significantly less diverse because of historical, less welcoming societal attitudes, and fewer opportunities, for self-expression, particularly as it relates to gender and sexual identity.