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Creating Authentic Youth Civic Engagement

By Laura E. Furr

Planning an opportunity for youth to engage in city government? How do you make sure it’s authentic?

Authentic youth civic engagement provides young people meaningful opportunities to contribute their experiences, knowledge and solutions to city issues. To create and sustain authentic youth civic engagement, city leaders and staff can follow three core values:

  • Treat youth as valuable partners in the work of local government;
  • Prepare and support youth to take on meaningful roles in addressing important issues; and
  • Respect and listen to youth.

City leaders may also want to proactively and deliberately avoid symbolic youth engagement that can feel good but risks ultimately alienating youth from civics and government.

When city leaders begin to build or expand youth civic engagement efforts, four initial steps support success:

  1. Scan and evaluate the authenticity of existing youth engagement efforts in the city.
  2. Assess the city’s readiness for authentic youth engagement opportunities. NLC’s Youth Engagement Perceptions Self- Assessment can support this step.
  3. Consider the different ways that cities create structures for youth voice. This
    and other resources from NLC provide examples and initial considerations for the most prevalent structures.
  4. Plan for a structure that supports strong partnerships between youth and adults and provides youth with meaningful opportunities to provide input.

Local Examples
Examples of various youth engagement structures from cities across the country demonstrate what youth can achieve when given the opportunity.

Youth councils are common in cities of diverse sizes across the country. NLC’s Introductory Brief on Starting a Youth Council provides more information.

  • Advocacy: The San Francisco Youth Council successfully advocated for a legislative change by the San Francisco City Council to provide free public transportation to youth of low and moderate income.
  • Outreach: The Park City, Utah, Youth Council polled teens to help decide how to provide effective teen programming and presented these results to the City Council.
  • Programming: The Rye, New York, Youth Council helps teens find work and gain professional experience by partnering with businesses to match them with teens looking for experience.
  • Youth-led Grants: Milwaukee’s Youth Council voted to allocate $35,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds for youth homelessness based on their understanding of the community’s needs.

About the author: Laura E. Furr is the program manager for justice reform and youth engagement in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Laura on Twitter at @laura_furr or reach her at