Why Engaging Young People Is Vital For City Leaders


Connecting state and local government leaders

“Mayors are figuring out that if you do not have kids at the table ... you’re probably not a very good mayor.”

Austin, Tex.—At the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual conference in Boston this past June, Gresham, Oregon Mayor Shane Bemis told his colleagues a story from his student days—attempting to expand available parking at his high school but getting brushed off by the city council.  

“My impassioned remarks were greeted with platitudes from councilors about how nice it was to hear from a young person, and essentially, a great big collective pat on the head,” he said at the time. “Needless to say, the council took no action.”

Today, Bemis is the chair of the recently established U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Youth Involvement. In 2018, the task force released a 2018 survey and best practices report “in order to obtain critical information surrounding youth engagement" and "create a baseline of information” on the topic.

Last week at South by Southwest, Bemis spoke about “Mayors, Youth, and the Fate of Cities” (audio available), and then shared his thoughts with Route Fifty on why the Conference of Mayors as a whole, as well as he and his colleagues individually, are increasingly focused on millennials and younger people.

“Mayors are figuring out that if you do not have kids at the table and you are not engaging their voice, you’re probably not a very good mayor,” he explained in our conversation.

Check out our full interview with Bemis about how city leaders are changing their thinking on how to engage and support children in their communities, what it means in Gresham, and more.

Our key takeaways:

On youth and educational outcomes.

“When we are talking about youth and educational outcomes, a lot of people want to take and lay everything at foundation of the educational process: it’s the school system, it’s the school district. They are responsible for everything. What we are trying to say is that the schools only have the kids for twenty percent of the time. The other 80 percent of the time, who has the kids?”

“We’re giving kids opportunities, we’re giving all kids access, we’re understanding that cities play a big role in the future of our children. That’s been a little bit of a paradigm shift for some mayors, so getting into that space and picking it up has been great for us.”

On the political dynamics and policy insight received.

“[Younger] Republicans and Democrats agree on some of the things that separate so wildly the older people. … So when we talk about climate change, Republicans and Democrats at a younger age agree on that, where they don’t at an older age. We talk about gender, sexuality, all of those sort of things, that’s viewed differently by younger people than it is by older people in terms of parties. If you’re not getting those voices to the table, you’re probably not leading your community very well.”

“For instance, we just did a survey in my home state of Oregon and 2,000 high school students were surveyed: ‘what is the number one thing you need in your … school?’ In my day it probably would have been, you know, more activities, more electives, whatever it might be. In Oregon, out of 2,000 students, the number one need was for more mental health services.”

“Now would we have intuitively gone there as a mayor? Probably not, but when we have that data, and we use it, and we’re getting meaning dialogue from our youth, then we can be better mayors and understand where we pick up the pieces.”

“So I think, again, mayors all across this country are picking up the mantle on that and understanding that in order for them to move their communities forward that needs to be an integral piece of it.”

What that means in Gresham, Oregon

“For our community, we are a suburb of Portland. As Portland has grown and gentrified, a lot of poverty has been shifted into our community so some of the services we didn’t have—and so we’ve had to build those constructs and those service providers in our community. So doing that really makes you think differently. Where we used to lay, again, everything at the school district’s doorstep, now everybody is starting to understand that everybody has a lot larger role to play in that process to get better outcomes for our children.”

Mitch Herckis is the Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Route Fifty.

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