Thursday, August 19, 2021
Including Youth Voices in Our Democracy
By Co-Editor Jonathan Todres & Adrianna Zhang
With the number of COVID-19 cases rising again, children in the US are facing the potential of a third straight school year being disrupted by the pandemic. Yet as policymakers and school administrators make decisions about reopening protocols, an essential group has been largely left out of the conversation: young people.
The U.S. prides itself on being a beacon of democracy. But 73 million constituents have little to no voice in our democracy. Politicians consistently overlook and marginalize individuals under 18 years old. Over the past year, policymakers have spent more time talking about and prioritizing reopening restaurants and bars than addressing the housing insecurity, educational disruptions, and mental health consequences of the pandemic that millions of children have experienced.
These are big issues to confront, requiring complex solutions. What is baffling is that in many areas, decision-makers are attempting to address school issues—or any issues affecting children—without ever talking to young people. Young people are not just part of some elusive future; they are ready to contribute to their communities now.
The government, at every level, must become more accessible to and inclusive of youth, especially those from historically underrepresented groups. Youth engagement will introduce new perspectives on current issues and help inspire solutions to persistent problems. As the new school-year is beginning, education is an obvious starting place for including young people’s voices.
Schools can start by surveying young people about challenges they face and any ideas they have for ensuring all students succeed. To be clear, listening to children should not replace communications with, and input from, parents and other caregivers—parents and caregivers are essential partners. But young people have insights that adults don’t, just as adults have perspectives that young people don’t. There is absolutely no downside to hearing from young people, unless we’re afraid of what they’ll tell us.
So, survey all students. Young people’s tech-savvy makes this easier than you might think. Better yet, schools should involve young people in the design of the survey, so they ensure that they ask the right questions and not just questions that serve adults’ interests. Then schools need to set up a process for ensuring ongoing dialogue with young people—all students, not just those they find easy to work with.
A partnership with young people cannot be limited just to individual schools. School district leaders can do better as well. School boards and superintendents should hold their meetings at accessible times so students do not have to miss class to ensure their voices are heard. They also should allocate a designated portion of public comment times to youth.
Other agencies with mandates that affect children—from health care, to transportation, to urban development—should follow suit. Just imagine, for example, what policymakers might learn if they heard from young people about their transportation needs. They would learn that many youth need better transportation systems not just to attend school but also to travel to work so they can help their families economically.
It’s not enough, however, just to open the doors to young people. Governments need to enhance efforts to teach young people how to effectively engage with agencies and make their voices heard. Schools are central to this, but every government agency can provide interactive guidance to young people so they can learn to present their ideas more effectively. Not only will this ensure agencies hear all good ideas, but civic engagement can lead to improved academic performance and enhanced social-emotional wellbeing for students.
Finally, we have to go beyond making existing spaces more open to youth. We need to create more avenues for young people to engage, from direct representation through local youth commissions to statewide ombudsperson offices for children. These exist in some places, but they need to be in all cities and states. At the federal level, young people have already urged President Biden to create an executive “Office of Young Americans” and appoint a “Director of Youth Engagement” who would sit on the Domestic Policy Council.
Partnering with young people will not only help confront pressing issues in schools and other settings, it will also help longer term by teaching young people the skills needed for effective participation in a democratic society, which ironically adults expect them to have the moment they turn 18.
There is no shortage of ways to involve young people. Doing so will help build a stronger democracy. Equally important, young people deserve to have a voice and feel valued in the community they grow up in and will live in for years to come.
The starting point is simple: We need to see, and treat, young people as genuine partners.
Jonathan Todres is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Adrianna Zhang is Founder and Executive Director of SF CHANGE and a high school senior in San Francisco.