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Opinion: Engaging youth key to thriving cities

Bryan Barnett

The cities that will fail will be those that fail to engage the youth of this country.

American Democracy is its strongest when more voices are included. Today, young people are increasingly looking to make their voices heard, and engaging them is the right thing to do.

But for places across the Midwest, answering their call could also make the difference between a bright, vibrant population and a stagnant, shrinking one. 

Skylah Pounds, 16, a member of the Cody Rouge Youth Council, speaks during the announcement of HuntingtonÕs $5 million investment in the Warrendale/Cody Rouge neighborhood through DetroitÕs Strategic Neighborhood Fund and Affordable Housing Leverage Fund.

Fortunately, a rewarding partnership between young people and their governments is possible. As the new president of the United States Conference of Mayors, I had the privilege recently of leading the first Mayors National Youth Summit in California, along with my friends Gresham (Oregon) Mayor Shane Bemis, who chairs the Conference’s Youth Involvement Task Force, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. We brought together dozens of mayors and more than 100 youth leaders and activists from across the country.

The idea was borne out of a recognition that this generation of young people is facing exceptional challenges, but is also exceptionally eager to contribute and find solutions. The summit wasn’t about electing more Republicans or more Democrats. It was about creating a more participatory democracy and stronger communities.

The summit was an opportunity for the mayors to listen and learn about what is driving youth movements today and how we can empower young adults. Politics can be cynical. In contrast, these young people were optimistic, passionate and committed to making this a better country.

We heard from young adults who’ve started national movements and those who simply want to make their city more inclusive.

The truth is, if we don’t engage young people in places like Michigan, they will leave us behind. Giving young people a seat at the table is not just good government; it’s important for preserving the dynamism of our communities.

We must recognize that this generation is confronting challenges different than those of previous ones. Social pressures abound. Enormous student loan costs are weighing them down before adulthood even begins. Wages have not kept pace with the broader strength of the economy. Home ownership is harder to attain. And all of this at a moment where technological change is providing great opportunity but also questions about what the jobs of the future will look like.

Facing all of this, the least we can do is give young adults a seat at the table as we pursue solutions. Because if we don’t, they will go elsewhere. Right now, young people are tempted to flee areas across the Midwest for coastal urban centers, leaving behind aging populations and the perception of lower productivity.

We must change the culture in which young people see government, politics and voting. 

In Rochester Hills, one way we’ve had success is with a city youth council. With 15 young people representing their generation, we use the council as a vehicle to promote youth involvement in government and to create a dialogue about solutions and experiences.

We also talked about other strategies, including the development of youth town halls. Young people have distinct issues that warrant special attention from elected officials, and there’s no better venue to be heard than at a town hall.

Of course, the most fundamental way young people can participate in democracy is at the ballot box. A critical element of our discussion in California was about effective ways to drive youth voter registration and turnout.

Above all, we must seek to inspire young people to participate in democracy.

Let’s be intentional about involving youth. Doing so may determine whether our communities fail or flourish.

Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.