We don’t need social scientists to tell us that young adults are too cynical to be politically engaged. Just ask any young person you meet. The recent findings of Harvard’s Institute of Politics — that Americans ages 18 to 29 possess a record low trust in government — shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.
At the same time, young people are digital natives. They’re sharing their trips on Instagram and tweeting about their favorite shows. Their networked lives afford the opportunity to use technology to get them engaged in politics. Many groups are exploring the possibilities. The Roosevelt Institute, a progressive nonprofit, has a campus network dedicated to helping students get involved in the political process. The New Organizing Institute is using data and digital tools to encourage a new generation of democratic participation; one of its projects makes local election data publicly available.
Among cities, Boston is leading the way by letting young people help decide how the city will use its money. Called “Youth Lead the Change,” the program is the country’s first youth-driven participatory budgeting effort. Boston has long been at the forefront of engaging young people in politics. It started the New Urban Mechanics, an outfit dedicated to civic innovation that uses cutting-edge digital tools to help people share ideas and collaborate on governance. (Working with Code for America, it generated a Where’s My School Bus? app.) Mayor Marty Walsh has supported a long-standing youth council that provides leadership opportunities for high school students. One of its projects: a peer-listening youth line, staffed by teenagers.
Youth Lead the Change, a partnership with the Participatory Budgeting Project, takes it one step further, allowing young people to decide how to spend $1 million of the city’s capital budget. The allotment is for brick and mortar infrastructure, such as parks, schools and transportation; projects must cost at least $25,000 each and have a life span of at least five years. Young people have been an integral part of each phase of the process, including governance: A steering committee, composed of youths representing diverse community groups, decided who can participate — in this case, residents of Boston, as opposed to neighboring areas such as Cambridge, and those age 12 to 25.
At neighborhood assemblies across the city, young people then gathered to brainstorm how to best help their communities. Some volunteered to work directly with government officials to craft viable budget proposals for the community to vote on. Fourteen projects were produced in categories such as streets and safety and parks, environment and health. From June 14 to June 20, people can vote for four projects (say, Chromebooks for high schools or new sidewalks for parks). There were hundreds of people at the vote kick-off event last Saturday. After placing their votes in a ballot box, voters received a celebratory sticker. For many, it’s the first time they ever voted.
By using digital tools in this participatory budgeting process, Boston has made it easier for students to get — and stay — involved. At the end of each idea-collection assembly, people were directed to text “YouthChange” to 877877 on their mobile phones to receive personalized updates and voting reminders. In addition to this SMS platform, a Web platform called Citizinvestor has allowed young people to submit ideas, make comments and vote on proposals.
One of the most telling aspects of the process, which I have witnessed closely as a researcher on the ground, has been the excitement youths feel about directing the flow of real money. They have gone to meetings after school, stayed late and asked insightful questions, from how to get Wi-Fi into schools to where water-bottle refill stations would be most useful. They also knew things adults might not, such as which unclaimed lots needed revamping or which community centers and parks were the most frequented. That kind of hyperlocal expertise about neighborhood needs informed the final projects.
City officials worked directly with students to explain the budget process. Young people learned that some projects, such as some Wi-Fi expansions, were already in the pipeline and that others would not be executable. Debates often centered on making sure projects would have the most widespread community impact. This is hands-on civic education; no academic training in government can compare.
Instead of assuming that young people are not interested in political participation, we should think about new ways to get them thinking about and acting on behalf of their communities. Youth Lead the Change suggests that a community-driven approach can bring together nontraditional stakeholders and initiate them into politics and governance — surprisingly effectively. The process takes a seemingly mundane process (infrastructure development) and makes it exciting. Those involved have made new friends and now have had a communal experience. Many have learned the painstaking process of implementing policy, and this is valuable lesson.
Youth Lead the Change should inspire other local and state governments to experiment with a growing toolkit that makes civic involvement easier. Learning from Boston, other cities are hosting mayor’s youth councils, including Indianapolis, Indiana, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Hawaii’s Future Caucus is engaging youth in government. The National League of Cities has a council on youth, education and families in which elected officials and youth representatives interact.
We do not have to accept widespread levels of disillusionment among young people. Doing so would be bad for them and for democracy. There are other options. We simply need to be more creative and willing to take risks. The potential rewards are enormous.