Minnesota Cities Magazine

Engaging Future City Leaders

By Andrew Tellijohn

Beth Mercer-Taylor and her daughter Katie don’t agree on every political issue. That’s led to some interesting dinner-time conversations since mom was elected to the Falcon Heights City Council.

But Beth appreciates that her daughter thinks for herself, and has strong civic pride and a desire to be involved. Katie Mercer-Taylor, a recent high school graduate, put those interests to good use during her high school years by serving as a student representative on the city’s Human Rights Commission. Future Mayor

“I’m really proud she wants to be involved,” Beth says. “It should be part of governments’ mission to prepare the ground for the next generation to come into leadership. Education can’t just be in the ivory tower.”

Many Minnesota cities agree with that philosophy and, as a result, have taken steps to get their teenage residents involved in city government. Some do it project by project while others integrate youth into the fabric of their committee systems.

Full-fledged voting members
In Falcon Heights (population 5,400), Katie was a key player when she sat on the Human Rights Commission. A major issue at the time was the 2012 amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in Minnesota, and Katie was out front leading efforts to defeat the proposal, says Mayor Peter Lindstrom.

For more than a decade, the city has had seats available to youth members on its Planning, Environment, Human Rights, and Parks and Recreation commissions. During that time more than a dozen students have taken part. Students also were included on an advisory commission that helped select the new city administrator. Currently there are two young people involved in the city, both of whom sit on the Environment Commission.

“They are full-fledged members,” Lindstrom says. “They have all the rights and responsibilities of the other commissioners. They have a vote and a great say in the workings of the city.”

The students also played a strong role in passing a domestic partner registry prior to the vote on the state’s 2012 marriage amendment, in pushing the city to increase its already high recycling rate, and in working to improve the disposal of food waste at local schools through composting.

Lindstrom says students benefit from getting involved in politics at a young age. They gain a better understanding of what it takes to get things done and they learn to take ownership of their city. It also improves their ability to trust and work with people of other generations.

“I think it’s beneficial for middle school students and senior high students to have peers who are 30 years old, 40, 50, 60, 70 years old, and be able to engage in that way,” he says, adding that working with others at “figuring out what a problem is all about, brainstorming on solutions, and implementing those solutions is really beneficial for everybody involved.”

He adds that it has been gratifying to learn and remember the thought processes of teenagers who are actively engaged. “We would never think of doing it any other way.”

Royalton’s successful skate park
There isn’t a formal youth engagement program in Royalton (population 1,200), but the city has engaged young people in certain projects.

Royalton Skate Park For example, a few years ago, a group of teenagers attended a City Council meeting and asked for assistance with building a skate park. In response, the city formed a committee with 13 youth and five adults, who teamed up on fundraising efforts, grant writing, and communicating with contractors. __________________________________________________________

Left: A teenager enjoys the Royalton Skate Park some of his peers helped build a few years ago. Photo by Danielle Voigt __________________________________________________________

The youth were “the ones who did the planning,” says Royalton Mayor Andrea Lauer. “The students helped write one of the grants, and they had the idea for what they wanted at the skate park. They took part in everything.”

In the end, the students got their park and they learned that their voices could be heard within the walls of the city. Young people, Lauer says, also have been involved in protecting the park in the years since, discouraging litter and self-policing behavior.

“It’s not a big park, but one that the youth took pride in building,” Lauer says. “One of the happiest days of my time as mayor was the day we had the grand opening. It made me realize how important youth involvement is for our cities.”

Mayor Lauer at Royalton Skate ParkThe skate park has been followed by youth participation in other areas. A couple years after the skate park opened, Royalton went through a visioning process. _____________________________________________

Right: Royalton Mayor Andrea Lauer says the opening of the city's skate park was one of her happiest days as mayor. Photo by Danielle Voigt
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The city gathered feedback from youth about how the community could improve, and one idea that arose was building a splash park. Adults are heading that project, but many students have been involved with fundraising and other aspects of the process.

Students from a technology club in Royalton also have been invited to present at a series of monthly meetings aimed at finding new amenities for the area. Representatives from several cities in Morrison County have attended these meetings.

“If we want more youth interaction within our cities, we have to listen to what they have to say, rather than us telling them what we want,” Lauer says. “It’s easy for adults to think we know what youth want, but when they come with ideas, that’s when we can get things done.”

Youth engagement increasing
Falcon Heights and Royalton are just two cities across the state and the country where youth participation in government is gaining momentum. The National League of Cities (NLC) and its Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) calls the participation of young people one of a city’s greatest assets and says that elected officials and city leaders are calling on them more frequently to help tackle some of the important issues in local government.

“More and more young people are also discovering that their voices matter to their communities, and that they can make their communities better places to live,” according to a YEF Institute report called Authentic Youth Civic Engagement: A Guide for Municipal Leaders. “Elected officials and civic leaders find that when they offer meaningful opportunities for youth to be engaged in their communities, more young people participate and encourage their peers to do the same.”

From offering budget-saving ideas to improving policies and programs for youth and identifying a youth-friendly community, the perspective of young people is being recognized as never before. To guide cities in starting such endeavors, the YEF Institute has created several resources and a framework to help. Ultimately, however, it comes down to local units of government creating a plan and finding out what works.

“There is no magic recipe or one-size-fits-all approach,” according to the report. “Success comes from blending the unique assets of a city with the collective knowledge and best practice from around the country.”

Rosemount Youth Commission
It was an NLC conference that spurred Rosemount Councilmember Jeff Weisensel and Mayor Bill Droste to begin exploring the creation of a Youth Commission in Rosemount (population 22,300) about a half-dozen years ago.

Students ages 14-18 are eligible to take part in the commission, which currently has 15 members. So far, Weisensel says, it has attracted a diverse membership of relatively active students who, once they establish trust and find their voices, have been more than willing to discuss and contribute on a number of issues.

Rosemount Youth Commission“I think we’ve been successful at tapping into a good group of kids that are at least aware there is something beyond high school,” he says. “A lot of them are curious. They just come wide-eyed and they have a lot of ideas.”

Students, for example, have partnered with the Rosemount Area Arts Council to create multi-generational events within the city. As they’ve planned the events, they all started brain¬storming about how they could tap into resources they already had access to. For example, a choir student asked fellow singers to attend an event, and a member of the school band asked a brass group to play. “They weren’t just there; they were participating and doing something,” Weisensel says.

The students benefit by gaining knowledge of how the city government operates. They visit with department heads, fire and police chiefs, and other officials. They’ve also visited the Dakota Communications Center to see the operations of the centralized public safety answering point and dispatch center for 11 cities within the county.

And city officials, both elected and staff, benefit because they can tap into direct knowledge about issues students are facing such as drugs in school, what services and amenities they want, and what they think it would take to draw them back home to Rosemount after they graduate from college, Weisensel says. “They wanted businesses,” Weisensel says. “The kids were pretty smart about what makes a good community.”

Getting started in Golden Valley
In Golden Valley (population 20,600), one of the city’s com¬missions currently has a teen representative on it. But youth involvement and engagement is about to take a further step forward. A recent action approved by the City Council created the Golden Valley Teen Committee, which will operate under the city’s Open Space & Recreation Commission in an effort to communicate with city government on matters affecting teenagers.

It was an idea promoted largely by Mayor Shep Harris, and city staff members were on board, says Parks and Recreation Director Rick Birno. “This will give us a tool to involve youth in all aspects of our operation,” he says. One place where Birno says young people’s voices will be of immediate value is within a task force looking into replacing a local community center. The task force will include a teen member, whose insight into how youth use such facilities can only help improve the project.

“We build a lot of facilities and operate a lot of facilities that are used by the community, especially young members of the community,” he says, adding that he hopes the young people get a sense of belonging from being involved in such issues.

That has been the case in other communities where youth have been heard. And the adult leaders say it’s about time they started taking more interest in what young people have to say.

“We’re growing new leaders, that’s the big thing,” Royalton’s Mayor Lauer says. “When they work within the community and see positive results, they also know there is a spot for them at the table, not only in the future when they are sitting in the seat as mayor, but also now as an active part of the community. Their voices are important.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.

Read the July-August 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine

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