Improving the Lives of Georgia’s Children and Youth: What’s Next

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Strides have been made in the areas of youth engagement and tackling the challenges that plague youth. But cities need to work together and forge partnerships for continued success in this area.

Over the past year, GMA has brought you stories of how cities, organizations and individuals are finding ways to support and engage young people in their communities. We’ve also spotlighted issues that affect children and youth – literacy, early childhood development, quality after school care and socio-economic and mental health issues – and how cities are tackling those challenges.

What these stories have demonstrated is that efforts are underway across the state to engage and empower children and youth, while addressing the issues that can hinder their success. But, as with most big issues, work still needs to be done.

The good news is cities do not have to do it alone.

GMA has always offered resources and tools to city governments to help them start initiatives, solve problems and maximize their potential. In terms of youth engagement, GMA has for a number of years engaged with city youth councils and last year created its Children and Youth Advisory Council, comprised of city leaders tasked with keeping up with what cities are doing in this area and offering guidance, policy and programming ideas.

Now GMA has another tool in its toolbox: Georgia City Solutions, Inc. (GCS).

Formed in 2018 as a 501(c)(3) organization, GCS is governed by a 12-member board made up of three municipal officials, the GMA Executive Director and eight corporate officials. Its purpose is to establish and support innovative programs that will positively impact cities and improve the quality of life Georgians. Youth leadership development is one of its three focus areas. Workforce and economic development and equity and inclusion are the other two.

“Those are the three major issues that cities are facing,” says GCS board member and Savannah Mayor Van Johnson. “If we put our best minds and our best resources towards finding ways to help cities to deal with those issues, it is three opportunities where they do not have to reinvent the wheel.”

“Collaboration is the Key”

Bringing cities together to collaborate and share ideas is the main goal of GCS.

“We want to take the best practices, replicate them, and give cities the tools and the seed money so they are more successful with a higher impact and less risk,” says Kirby Thompson, Chair of GCS and Senior Vice President, Community and Government Affairs at Truist. “With GMA’s proven track record, we’re building off past successful programs.”

Currently the organization is conducting a study to evaluate the feasibility of raising $5 million to put towards programs in the three focus areas. Once a realistic amount is determined, GCS will launch a fundraising campaign. Of the $5 million they hope to raise, GCS has $1.2 million budgeted for youth engagement.

“Every city has youth that we want to reach, empower, nurture and make a part of the fabric of their community,” Thompson says. “The positive outcomes associated with youth engagement make for better academic performance, lower drug use and lower pregnancy rates. If you can reach out and provide positive programming in these areas, it makes a difference.”

While GCS is offering a platform for cities to collaborate with each other, Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson says that it is crucial for city leaders to work together and bring in other partners from the community.

“Collaboration is the key,” says Henderson, who also sits on the GCS board. “It’s incumbent upon elected officials to be conveners and bring together a number of constituencies. The only way to impact a child’s life and enhance their opportunity for success is to bring together all of the different areas of community to include the private sector, charitable/philanthropic organizations, school systems and faith-based organizations. I think city leaders are in a position to bring all of these groups together and start those discussions that lead to a very successful collaboration.”

“You Have to Build Your Own Bench”

Mayor Johnson is a firm believer in utilizing youth councils – or youth commissions – to engage youth. For the past 25 years, he has served as the director of the Chatham County Youth Commission. He estimates that 1,000 youth have gone through the program since he’s been overseeing it, and he’s now mentoring some of the kids of early participants. Along the way, the Savannah Youth Council and the Tybee Island Youth Council were created to engage younger students. He’s also lent his expertise to other cities in Georgia and around the country to help them establish youth councils. He believes cities need to nurture the talent they have – if not, they’ll find another place to grow and contribute.

“If you don’t build your own bench, other cities will take your future stars as free agents,” he says, invoking a sports analogy. “In Savannah/Chatham County, we have a strong farm system from building our own bench. Unfortunately, too often young people who have great skills, great potential and great aspirations go and make other cities great. You can give them the opportunity to be great right where they live.”

Youth councils allow students to learn about civic engagement, how city government operates and community service. Along the way they also pick up valuable life skills such as self-confidence, leadership and networking experience.

There are 33 city-sponsored youth councils in Georgia. One of the initiatives built into the GCS budget is to provide grants to cities who want to form their own youth council.

“We can provide a starter kit on how to establish a youth council,” Thompson says, “by sharing and building on the success of the other 33 cities. This is exciting to me. Every city struggles with youth engagement. We can make a step towards cities leading in this area.”

Bringing Individuals and Organizations Together

When it comes to solving issues that affect children – such as poverty, childcare and literacy – East Point Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham has a lot of experience. She has spent her career as an advocate for youth and education, and now is currently a Quality Program Specialist for the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network. She also chairs GMA’s Children and Youth Advisory Council.

Cities can’t solve the issues that affect youth and families on their own. She says the focus should be setting up an infrastructure that connects the dots to resources that help children and families thrive and guides those who need help navigating the system.

“Parents and caretakers are often told what they need to do, but often they aren’t given the resources or guidance to follow through,” Ingraham says. “We need to make sure everyone has access to that. Cities can help restoratively connect the dots to resources. They can be the conveners, knowing the different opportunities that exist, communicating those and improving the impact on children and families.”

Having a positive impact on children, families and communities in general is the mission of GCS and these leaders are optimistic about the future.

“We know the challenges that cities are facing,” Henderson says. “GCS is allowing us to look at those issues and really make a difference. We are excited about what GCS will be able to accomplish. I think we’ll be able to look back in 10 to 15 years and really see some visible victories.”

Read part 11 of this 12-part series, “Engaging Youth in Creative Ways.”

Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.

Kelli Bennett
GMA Communications Director

Krystin Dean
GaFCP Communications Specialist

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Georgia Municipal Association anticipates and influences the forces shaping Georgia’s cities and provides leadership, tools, and services that assist municipal governments in becoming more innovative, effective and responsive.