The Two Sides of Youth Engagement

05/19/2011 02:54 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2011

The goose bumps ran up the back of my neck and a slight tear came from my eye last January as I sat listening to 15 State Farm Youth Advisory Board members give final reflections and say their goodbyes.

I was the youngest new board member and uncertain of what I had gotten myself into. But listening to both youth and staff talk about their experience giving away $5 million to youth led service-learning projects made me realize it was something special: a group of kids that truly wanted to make a difference and who had the resources, support, and tools to accomplish it.

Fast-forward, after three years as Chair and one year as a member, my last meeting of the Santa Fe Mayor's Youth Advisory Board (MYAB) had arrived. In attendance were both the new and the old board members along with the Mayor, the Deputy Chief of Police, and the Director of the Youth and Family Services Department. I hoped for my last meeting to be as special as the moment I had with State Farm back in January.

With some facilitation, new and old members launched into a discussion about the problems the youth of Santa Fe were having. Everything from the stereotypical "there is nothing to do for youth," to drug use rates and gang involvement were discussed. And the members were not simply complaining -- they were problem solving.

Their answer for how there is nothing to do was to follow an example from the city of Albuquerque and host multi-school dances while writing grants to fund them. On the issue of drugs and gang violence, the board had a long conversation with the Deputy Chief of Police about what the police department was doing to prevent these activities. They also discussed how the MYAB could improve the Positive Youth Engagement Project, which brings police officers into schools to build better relationships with youth.

The conference lasted nearly an hour and was so successful that the Mayor stayed an extra half hour just to hear from the youth board members. This is just one example of the success that youth engagement can have and why it is so important.

However, it is equally important to recognize that discussions don't always run smoothly, and that there is still a lot of work to be done. I can't help but remember a time when I arrived an hour late to a meeting with the Juvenile Justice Board (my fellow MYAB member and I were given the wrong start time.) When the meeting ended fifteen minutes later, only one person came up to introduce themselves and the rest of the all-adult board filed out without any acknowledgement that we were there. It was utterly discouraging to not only see an all-adult board address a youth issue, but also to have them ignore the only two youth in attendance.

When it is done correctly, the results are empowering. Youth feel like they can make a significant difference in their communities and policy makers come away with solutions to community problems. But when it's done wrong, or not done at all, the results are unfortunate. The same problems continue, youth become frustrated at their experience or at their community and nobody benefits. It is time for our community leaders to understand that youth must be effectively engaged, for we are the future and our future begins right now.