Enhancing Democracy by Engaging Youth

180228111941-high-school-parkland-rally-exlarge-169As a professor and as a parent, Colleen works with young people every day, and knows that young people’s insights are critical to a truly representative democracy.


Gun violence in schools along with other issues has galvanized young people across the country to become politically active. Here in Maryland, in the months after the deadly shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, young people registered to vote in droves and deluged Maryland’s congressional delegation with letters and emails. Between February and May 2018, for example, nearly three times more people aged 16-25 years registered to vote than those aged 35-60-years, according to the Maryland Board of Elections.

Youth movements around the world have transformed the political landscape, and today’s youth movement is poised to do the same, through the 2020 and 2024 elections and beyond. What is clear already is that far from being passive recipients’ of services provided by adults, young people are doers and contributors who deserve a seat at the decision-making table.

By incorporating the energy and ideas of our young people, we can also enhance the civic engagement of their families and communities. Studies have shown that involving young people in election-related discussion and activities impacts the entire household, increasing the likelihood that others in the household will vote. In many immigrant communities, young people are often among the most effective messengers, being both easier to reach and often more fluent in English, providing a critical bridge to increasing often marginalized communities’ engagement with the political process.

Government leaders can incorporate young people into the policy-making process through official channels that leverage their energy and ideas to solve real problems. Such channels move beyond the traditional student councils, which limit young people’s input in policymaking to their roles as students. After all, besides being students, our young people are also pedestrians, consumers of health services, neighbors in housing developments and in our public spaces and transportation networks, and fellow residents in areas with variable levels of pollution.

Both the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore bring young people into the decision-making process through vehicles such as the state’s Youth Advisory Council and the city’s Youth Commission. Such bodies provide our government leaders with the perspective of new voters and critical checks on their own transparency and accountability. At the same time, youth councils provide young people with opportunities to engage directly with the political process, developing the leadership skills and the civic education they will need to become the next generation of leaders.

For example, when students at Benjamin Franklin High School in Baltimore City spoke out against a proposed incinerator in their neighborhood, they succeeded in bringing its construction to a stop. One of the students who spearheaded the initiative continued her advocacy as a student at Towson University, where she partnered with faculty and NGOs to create an environmental justice curriculum for science teachers at Franklin High School.

What can we do?

Here in Baltimore County, besides the student councils that advise the county’s Board of Education, we have no official channels for young people to play any role in the policy-making process.

As councilwoman, Colleen will work toward changing that by creating a new Baltimore County Youth Council, one that will represent the diversity of the county’s population. Activities of the Youth Council will include conducting forums and surveys of youth perspectives to advise the council on key issues, identifying resource and opportunity gaps in County neighborhoods, managing youth-led projects around the County, and keeping peers informed about the Council’s activities and ways to get involved.

For more information