Volume 13, Number 1 – January 2016

Community Leadership: Time for a Youth Infusion

As my creaky knees often remind me, I am getting older—whether I like it or not.  Yet, I find that I’m still a relative youngster in a large swath of my day job—interacting with community economic development leaders around the U.S.  The business of economic development skews older, and we need to engage younger folks.  Basically, we need a youth infusion in community decision-making.  This issue of EntreWorks Insights looks at how some U.S. communities are tackling this challenge.

Why do should we care about youth involvement in economic development decision-making?   Ideally, we should seek to engage all local residents—from diverse ethnicities, age cohorts, and economic circumstances—in these discussions.  But, engaging young people should be especially important.  Why?  First off, youth generally have lower community participation rates.  So they are more heavily under-represented already.   In many rural communities, youth engagement is a key tool in addressing problems of brain drain.   Youth engaged in community decision making are more likely to stay in a community or return later in life.  Finally, and most importantly, youth engagement is good for all involved.  Youth gain key leadership and career skills, and economic developers benefit from a source of new ideas and new energy. 

I suspect that few people would quibble with this case for youth engagement, but then why is real youth engagement so rare in community economic development?  Typically, we become consumed with the short term:  “We need to create jobs now,” or “We need to focus on helping adult workers” or “I don’t have time to engage youth too.”  But, all of these perhaps reasonable excuses should not obscure this basic fact:  our current practices restrict opportunities to engage young people and often produce decisions that may not effectively represent the needs and aspirations of our community’s future residents and leaders.    To give a sense of the problem, a survey of rural youth in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska found that 72% of surveyed young people had never been asked for their opinion on how to make their community more attractive to youth.

Youth engagement can take many forms, and some of them are more show that reality.  But, we do know that effective youth engagement efforts have several characteristics as noted by the Orton Foundation and others.  Ultimately, communities should have an expectation that young people are engaged in discussions of all community issues and have a chance to be heard and take part in crafting and implementing solutions.

There is a huge body of resources related to youth engagement, some of which are noted below. Here are some highlights and tips, along with some local examples that might guide you in improving your own youth outreach efforts.

  1. Create venues for youth engagement
    Young people won’t get engaged unless they are asked or persuaded to participate.  This requires venues for such participation.  They can take many forms.  Some communities have a youth council that can advise local government or advocate on key issues like education or encouraging greater civic participation.   These youth councils are quite common and can be found across the US.  (You can access a National League of Cities clearinghouse on this topic here.    NLC has also published an excellent guide to authentic youth engagement that is full of useful how-to tips.)  Other communities opt to engage youth via their direct involvement on local decision-making bodies or via participation in town hall meetings or kinds of planning sessions.

  2. Create opportunities for real engagement
    Effective youth engagement needs to “keep it real,” i.e. provide young people with genuine opportunities to do something or to make change happen.  This is often easier said than done when it comes to sometimes complicated economic development discussions.  It may tough for teenagers to comment on zoning rules, but there are countless other opportunities for them to engage in other activities.   This could include leading research projects, such as mapping local assets, identifying local needs, or surveying local youth attitudes.  It might also entail working on initiatives of special interest to young people.  Entrepreneurship is one issue area that often resonates with young people, and has proved to be a great unifier, especially in rural communities.  My colleagues at the Center Rural Entrepreneurship sponsor a whole series of local initiatives, known as New Generation Partnerships, that place entrepreneurship at the center of community youth engagement strategies.   These efforts have been quite successful in Nebraska, where they are integrated with a wider set of economic development strategies, known as Hometown Competitiveness.  For example, in Holt County, NE, young people helped develop a countywide strategy that has helped spawn the creation/retention of more than 200 jobs and attracted more than 100 new households to the small rural community. \

    Similar approaches are being used across the globe.  Data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show high levels of youth interest in entrepreneurship combined with lagging rates of actual business start-up.   The cause?  A shortage of support, training, and mentoring/coaching to help young people take the leap from entrepreneurial aspiration to start-up.   Around the globe, young people are primed for business start-up, and will benefit greatly from community engagement and encouragement.

  3. Act on the inputs provided by area youth
    Finally, it’s not enough to give voice to young people.  We need to act on their ideas and recommendations.   This is the real key to making youth engagement into a meaningful exercise.   The Orton Foundation, via its Heart and Soul Community strategic planning model, has been especially effective on this front.   This approach has been deployed in numerous small towns where you can find great models and case studies.  For example, in Manchester, VT, young people sit on all of the community major decision making bodies.  In Biddeford, ME, high school students helped lead the community visioning process that culminated in the town’s new master plan.

In North Carolina, the NC Rural Center engaged young people in the creation of a new initiative, New Generation Ventures, that provides rural NC youth with business coaching/mentoring and business finance support.  This strategy emerged directly from the state’s rural youth, who were engaged via surveys and focus groups to discuss what they wanted from their communities and what would help them stay in their rural hometowns.  New Generation Ventures is a direct result of this effort.  The message from young people was very clear:  “Change begins with engagement.”   80% of them noted that they were ready and willing to volunteer on community projects, but had never been asked to help.  Now, it’s up to us to ask!

What’s New at EntreWorks Consulting?

After a lovely holiday season, we’re back at it—continuing our work on, among other things, interesting regional projects in Alabama and Pennsylvania.  Erik Pages of EntreWorks is also devoting a good amount of his free time to the start-up of WERA-LP FM, a new community radio station based in Arlington, VA.  Locals can listen at 96.7 FM or all can join us online at www.wera.fm.  We also continue to provide more regular news and updates at the EntreWorks blog at http://entreworks.net/blog.   Recent posts have discussed the state of onshoring, innovation in legacy industries, new tools for rural outreach, and programs to assist coal-dependent regions.  You can also access blog updates at our Facebook and LinkedIn pages and on Google Plus.