University City

Students can have voice

A new civic, government and education collaboration will allow high-school-age teens in Mecklenburg County to help shape policies that will affect their peer group.

Charlotte nonprofit GenerationNation has partnered with the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to form the Youth Leadership Alliance. The group is a chance for freshmen through seniors not only to provide feedback and input to local policy makers, but also to learn about government operations and develop skills in leadership and journalism, said GenerationNation Executive Director Amy Farrell.

“There are a lot of decisions made that impact children and youth,” Farrell said. “Having them as stakeholders (in the process) will make the policies and decisions that are much stronger when implemented.”

The youth council is open to any student, regardless of whether they attend a CMS school, Farrell said, as long as they have an interest in civic and government engagement, leadership or journalism.

Youth Leadership Alliance has had three meetings since forming earlier this year, and Farrell estimated roughly 80 students are already involved. There is no deadline to join and no cap on how many students can participate, she said.

The idea for the council has been years in the making, Farrell said. GenerationNation, formerly called Kids Voting, has been active in Charlotte since 1992 and offers educational programs to students about civics and government, she said.

The recently-formed Youth Leadership Alliance is a new incarnation of a previously existing group of students, encouraged by an official commitment from area leaders interested in what students think, Farrell said.

“The city, county and school leaders in the past few years have thought ‘We really need a youth council,’ and surveyed what other youth councils are doing around the country,” she said. Rather than starting an entirely new group, leaders partnered with GenerationNation’s existing student network, with the goal of expanding student representation and viewpoints provided, she said.

An example of the success student feedback can have on local policy was demonstrated with CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison’s inclusion of students on all 22 task forces that were recently charged with helping develop goals for the district’s new strategic plan, Farrell said.

“The community members on the task forces aren’t in school every day,” she said. When one task force examined why local students aren’t taking more AP tests, Farrell said, students were able to give examples such as the personal cost of testing, full course loads and after-school jobs, among others.

Youth Leadership Alliance will meet about twice a month during the school year and periodically over the summer, and meetings include time for students to work together to identify issues important to their peer groups, Farrell said.

Issues are relayed from the youth council to policy makers in a number of ways, Farrell said, including face-to-face meetings, social media, presentations by students of a youth agenda and being tapped by officials for feedback.

“We're also working on an idea to have youth weigh in by text message comment or poll. For example, if the City Council is discussing a new curfew, they could reach out to the council to get a student consensus real-time,” Farrell said.

Youth Leadership Alliance meetings also include question-and-answer periods with elected officials, government workers, city and county staff and community leaders, as well as covering local civic and government meetings through social media and for students’ school newspapers, she said.

At the council’s Oct. 15 meeting, students had a question-and-answer session with Charlotte mayoral candidates Patrick Cannon and Edwin Peacock and covered the event through Twitter, Facebook and Storify, Farrell said.

“It helps to highlight the student voice,” she said. Issues of interest identified so far include education policy, how governments get – and decide how to spend – funding, as well as how they collaborate, Farrell said, noting more issues will be identified as the council gains more diverse representation.

“Students work together very well and want to see adult leaders doing the same thing.”