As local governments look to channel thriving climate justice youth movements toward civic engagement and policymaking, dozens of city governments around the country are establishing programs that give youth an opportunity to influence municipal decisions addressing climate issues. These programs—which have sprung up in San Antonio; Portland, Oregon; and elsewhere—also offer students training and networking opportunities, teach practical skills, and will hopefully open new career paths for the next generation of climate leaders.
“It is not just giving youth a seat at the table; it’s about youth being active participants with the adults in the conversation [and] the action that comes after that conversation,” says Nancy Deutsch, director at Youth-Nex, an interdisciplinary center to promote effective youth development housed at the University of Virginia.
It’s unclear, however, how much youth councils are actually affecting larger public policies implemented by adults in municipal government. While these programs are meant to encourage youth participation and investment in policymaking, Deutsch stresses that “the onus [is] on the adults to demonstrate that they have changed how they make decisions and to document how the system has changed as a result of the youth council.” The success of youth climate council programs ultimately depends on how they affect the skills and attitudes of participants, as well as whether the councils’ suggestions end up shaping city policies and practices.
Success requires support and inclusion
Youth councils can take many forms, but organizers say that what makes them effective is transparency and clarity about the scope of their role as part of local government and the degree of autonomy and oversight they require. Deutsch says that the development stage is critical to organizing a successful youth council because it needs a solid foundation and clearly defined role and responsibilities from the outset.
“Before starting a council, the city should have outlined what the council members will do, how their ideas will be put into practice, and what their power is within the city government and policymaking system,” Deutsch said.
On the San Antonio Mayor’s Youth Engagement Council, Austin-based nonprofit EcoRise is responsible for much of this work. It facilitates the youth council with support from the mayor’s office, the Office of Sustainability, and the Hollomon Price Foundation. Administrators at EcoRise select council members through an application process, and councilors serve for one academic year and attend at least two monthly meetings. The major components of the San Antonio council are standardized and include a speaker series, student projects, and facetime with municipal leaders to give council members a chance to influence decision-making and hold leaders accountable for their action or inaction on climate change.
“Students are being directly connected to not only professionals and organizations, but members of the Office of Sustainability and the mayor as well,” says Laura Fuller, communications and design manager at EcoRise. “It was really powerful to see last year. They were grilling [the mayor] and really wanting to know answers and see accountability.”
Over in Oregon, the Portland Youth Climate Council is much more diffuse. Members do not serve fixed terms, the recruitment process is informal, and access to municipal leaders is less direct. Since joining last year, 14-year-old Joel Guren says the group has discussed significant issues, including Portland’s pedestrian design guide update and the need to improve Portland’s urban tree canopy. Without a strong support structure however, Guren says that the youth council struggles to get through to city leadership.
“It’s a group that was created to advise the city council, but they’ve kind of forgotten about us,” they said.
Portland City Council did not respond to inquiries by press time.
Detajha Woodson, Youth-Nex’s program and outreach associate, is establishing a youth council in Charlottesville, Virginia, to integrate the perspectives of young people in developing youth-oriented programs at Youth-Nex. She hopes to set a foundation for equity and inclusion of marginalized students, particularly students of color, that flows upward from the recruitment stage. Woodson has designed an application with open-ended demographic questions and questions about what issues applicants most want to address in their communities, which will help the Youth-Nex team select councilors who represent diverse communities and needs.
“I want this to be very inclusive, very diverse,” she says.
Deutsch and Woodson agree that compensating students for their time is essential to building an inclusive program because it shows students that their time is valued and makes serving on a council more feasible for participants from low-income backgrounds. But Woodson noted that it can be complicated to pay students when information like social security numbers or other forms of personal documents are required to do so—that kind of information requirement can exclude or deter students based on their immigration status.
Students on the San Antonio council will be compensated for the first time during the 2022-23 school year. Brittany Jayroe, director of youth programs at EcoRise, says students will be paid stipends “in the way that best fits their needs to remove barriers to participation.” EcoRise also offers its youth council application materials in both English and Spanish to make them accessible to a greater number of potential applicants.
After joining a youth council, students also need a solid mental and emotional support structure to facilitate their work. Accommodations such as flexibility for councilors who work part-time jobs, have caretaking responsibilities, or just need to take some time off to focus on coursework can encourage participation. Some youth council programs have built-in counseling services, but in San Antonio, staff at EcoRise often fill this role in a less official capacity.
“When I felt really overwhelmed and just very stressed by the content of the program [or] just because of all the things going on in my life, when I’ve reached out to Sharon [Huerta] and other members, they’ve been really helpful and always there to support us,” said 16-year-old Caroline McGuire.
Youth councils are proactive, but do city officials pay attention?
While the structure of the San Antonio program allows youth council members direct access to municipal leaders, administrators at EcoRise say it has been hard to gauge the youth council’s influence on city decisions. During the program’s first year, students were tasked with developing policy proposals and presenting them to the city council. Fuller says it isn’t apparent whether the policymakers incorporated student ideas into their work.
“I’ve reached out to the city myself to ask like, ‘What’s up? What happened?’ and haven’t gotten a response,” she said.
San Antonio City Council did not respond to inquiries by press time.
Portland’s youth council is facing similar struggles, particularly with its relationship to the rest of the city’s officials. Despite the Multnomah County and City of Portland’s 100% renewable energy by 2050 resolution including a clause to create the youth climate council, Guren says the council is treated like any other outside organization.
“I would like it if they treated us as more a part of things, instead of just another organization that’s helping against climate change,” they said.
Regardless of city officials’ lack of response to youth councils’ input, organizers are still moving forward and focusing on improvements. Before inaugurating its second cohort, program administrators at EcoRise decided to shift gears. Huerta, an EcoRise education specialist, says that this past academic year there was “more of a focus on research-based projects and doing more hands-on work.”
This decision was partly in response to the ambiguous response of city officials to the previous year’s policy proposals. EcoRise also wanted to embrace Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), an “innovative approach to positive youth and community development based on social justice principles in which young people are trained to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, their communities, and the institutions intended to serve them.”
Deutsch says YPAR is an excellent tool for youth councils “because it both centers young people’s experiences and definitions of issues and engages them in not only researching the issues but in constructing potential solutions.”
The projects that San Antonio youth councilors developed and implemented this year followed this model. They were grouped under the themes of community health, biodiversity, food security, transportation, and recycling and waste management. McGuire worked with four other youth councilors on the community health team to develop a workshop to support vulnerable communities in Westside San Antonio.
“The major thing that we did was to distribute a survey and then get data from that to understand what the community needs,” they said. “We asked mostly open-ended questions. We wanted people to really tell us their experiences living in the area and where they see their needs are not being met.”
The food security team also tailored its project to support underserved communities in Westside and Southside San Antonio. Symphany Brietzke, 17, who worked on the project, says she understood the need for material support in the Southside because she lives there and has “seen [the need] firsthand.” For Brietzke, the resources made available through the youth council made it possible for her to support her vulnerable neighbors. After conducting research about community needs, the team collected food and hygiene product donations and built two “Little Free Pantries.” Modeled after Little Free Libraries, community members can take food or supplies from these stocked boxes in public parks that are maintained by local park staff.
Going forward, Huerta says EcoRise is “looking at reflections and lessons learned of how we can merge the first year, where we really focused on policy proposals, and also this year, how more research-based action would work.”
The team also hopes to improve communication between youth councilors and city administrators by inviting administrators to council meetings and rolling out a mentorship program to partner students with administrators, allowing them to form stronger relationships.
Guren says that in Portland, the path forward is less clear. Without an active link to city leadership or liaisons like those at EcoRise, the councilors have limited power. As Deutsch pointed out, adults must take an active role in making youth council programs work, and initiative to improve communication will need to come from the city.
Empowering the Next Generation
Despite challenges, youth climate councils in their various forms have significant effects on their student participants. Despite frustrations, Guren says they “really enjoy helping with the climate movement” and that the Portland Youth Climate Council has provided a space to engage with peers and work on issues that matter to them. McGuire also says the experience “has really opened my perspective of what environmental science can look like and my role in this whole climate crisis.”
For Brietzke, who graduated this past summer, her time on the San Antonio youth council shaped her career trajectory. She has her mind set on a degree in biology and plans to continue educating people about climate change-related issues. She got some of her first experience as a public speaker on the topic at an energy and water event at the Tobin Center earlier this year, thanks to youth council connections.
“This is the next generation,” says Fuller. “They’re going to continue to grow up and take on these projects, maybe with even more momentum than they would have if they had not been on the council, and that will bring about real change.”