Without a Seat at the Table

by Peter Lauterborn on September 29, 2006

The case for youth engagement in politics and advocacy

Are youth the leaders of tomorrow? Perhaps, but there is a strong need for young people to be active today in the political and policy-making processes. Need an example? This year, State proposition 85—the reincarnation of last fall’s proposition 73—is again trying to make it illegal for a woman under the age of 18 to get an abortion without parental notification. But among the multitude of reason to again oppose this law—right to choose, parental abuse, unsafe and secret abortions—one stands about the political and emotion fury of the issue:

This law only affects those citizens who coincidently are the only citizens with absolutely no way to impact the vote’s outcome: those under 18 years of age. Is there any other demographic with such an absolute lack of input into the policies that affect their lives?

The real issue here is that young people must be allowed into to political process so that when decisions are made about their lives, the decision-makers can say that they understand the impact their actions will have on their constituents.

What is often ignored is that young people have a perspective which is not only unique, but also very valuable to developing sound policy. Common sense will tell you that policy that is designed with the opinions and values of those impacted will be stronger, more effective, and is more likely to achieve its intended goals.

But youth—just like adults—need the proper venues and opportunities to efficiently exhibit their abilities.

I unfortunately can’t sit here and write that the majority of youth who are active are using their energy effectively. The opportunities provided by those with authority for young people to develop in are not conducive to development nor at improving their lives. Currently, there are only two major ways that young people get involved in leadership and advocacy.

The first common avenue for youth leadership is of the cute, old-fashioned lemonade and cookies type: student government. Energized and achieving students are always encouraged to make the bold move to run for student government. This is so that they can use their exceptional abilities to plan that year’s Valentine’s Day Dance and to explain back to the students why the Principal had to shut down the newspaper club.

But what if such positions were changed to give the students a voice within their schools? I dare you to envision a school where students have a say over what extra-curricular activities or AP courses are offered. Imagine a school where students could call for days of learning regarding topics of interest. The common, yet flawed gut reaction to such ideas is that students are irresponsible, and all this would result in them demanding no homework and Play Stations for all.

But what is often forgotten is that young people want to learn; they have insatiable curiosities about the world that they are discovering through the events of daily life. The problem is not that they are intellectually lazy, but that the vast majority of offerings at public schools are not in line with what students want. I challenge anyone to think back to their high school and recall any interest in anything but a small handful of teachers. Just as in the past, the ideal of today’s students is not without work but rather full of work that develops their mind, body, and identity.

The second common environment where we see youth engaged in advocacy efforts is trying to climb up the political ladder. Sadly, merit in this world is not gained through expressing their great ideas and perspectives as part of an advising team to a political figure. More often, a young person’s only chance to gain influence is as an intern running copies and acting as the token youth in photo ops, usually with the intention of creating the illusion that the office holder cares.

But with proper channels to express themselves, young people could make drastic improvements to the policy makers make all decisions—and this includes impacting the way all adults use their power to vote. So what can the average adult do to help engage young people?

• When faced with a ballot decision—be it a proposition or a candidate—talk to a couple of young people about what is important to them. Push them to express their own views.
• Support candidates who have a known record of supporting youth voice, or have pledged to do so once in office.
• If you are in a position of authority—political or otherwise—and you have young interns or employees, try to get them to do more than busy work. Talk with them to understand their ideas and perspectives.

San Francisco is fortunate to have a plethora of community-based organizations that practice youth leadership, such as Coleman Advocates, Center for Young Women’s Development, LYRIC, and many others. We also have the nation’s leading youth-in-government entity in the City’s Youth Commission, which does powerful work to bring the issues of young people to the politicians at City Hall. However, there are also five key entities that must improve their ability and willingness to consistently engage young people in their decision making process.

The San Francisco Unified School District. Young people spend so much of their developmental years under their authority, and yet the SFUSD has often been the government entity least conducive to youth. Articles have been written time and time about the SFUSD cracking down on students for speaking out, and those are just the stories you hear about. But build school environments that students desire, and you will see beautiful things happen in education.

SF Department of Parks & Recreation. Beyond sports, the Department must be willing to work with young people to develop innovative programs that engage youth to support their development while not in school. Among other benefits, proper recreation improves health, social connections, and, most importantly, safe havens.

San Francisco Police Commission. Law enforcement must begin to understand why youths do what they do, and how to best support safe communities. (Beyond youth, this is work the Commission needs to do with communities in general.) The difference between juvenile and adult crime is the potential to direct the course of the rest of that young person’s life. They must talk to young people about what they need.

The media. And when I say media, I mean everything: newspapers, TV, radio, and so on. Young people know what is going on in their world, and adults are interested in this. They want to know what their children’s lives are like, but they won’t find out unless youth are given the proper platform to express themselves.

Candidates for public office. Youth know that candidates in general do not care about the needs of young people, specifically those under the voting age of 18. So the political talk—local, state, and national—all speak of high-stakes testing, prison, law enforcement, and controlled social and sexual lives. Perhaps the hardest institution to crack, the nation’s election process has nothing to do with providing for all of its citizens when so many are not even glanced at in the process.

It is clear that there must be reform in so many other areas too, including other aspects of government, entertainment and even within the homes of youth. But now you, the reader can begin to grasp what is at stake here.

If we keep building institutions, passing legislation, and developing social norms without the support of those it affects, these creations are doomed to fail. They will fail because if what is placed upon young people is irrelevant to their lives, they will reject it, respond, and fight back. But if youth are incorporated into all decision-making processes, the results will be successful and meaningful.

And it is there we can begin to make progress.

Peter Lauterborn was a member of the San Francisco Youth Commission from 2003-2005, and served as Government Affairs Officer. Contact him at peterl@sfsu.edu

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