Engaging Our Youth to Improve Georgia’s Civic Health

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By Rebecca Rice and Elizabeth Turner, Georgia Family Connection Partnership

What do young people need from their communities? How can decision-makers change local systems to better support younger constituents? What can adults do to ensure youth have the desire and information they need to become active, contributing members of their communities now—and in the future?

To answer these questions, Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) and Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) went straight to the source in spring 2021. We can learn a lot from our next generation of leaders if we take the time to ask and listen.

Through a joint effort, GMA, GaFCP, and our networks aim to allow teen voices to help shape the way local elected officials and other community leaders operate—from day-to-day activities to system-level policies and procedures. We hope needs are better known and met, and that ultimately young people feel more empowered to become active and productive participants in their communities.

Building on our partnership to produce the 2019 Georgia Civic Health Index, GMA and GaFCP worked with an evaluator to design a survey aimed at assessing teens’ needs, their ability to access services to meet those needs, and help them become more engaged.

The survey was tested with members of city-sponsored youth councils, and in April, a pilot was launched in Dahlonega, Macon-Bibb County, and Washington County (Sandersville). The local city government and Georgia Family Connection partners tapped into existing local relationships with youth-serving organizations. Using varying methods of data collection, all three communities achieved a statistically significant, representative sample of high-school-aged youth.

The results revealed that young Georgians have unmet needs, with a recurring theme of lack of transportation, especially to and from jobs and after-school activities. Data disaggregated by race and ethnicity showed significant disparities with 81% of white, 50% of black or LatinX males, and 36% of black or LatinX females reporting adequate transportation.

When asked what they need help with, 41% said assistance with finding or applying for a job. Other top responses were help graduating from high school and help participating in after-school activities. Multiple respondents also reported needing help getting enough food to eat, staying safe from gangs, and feeling safe in their neighborhood.

The most common form of civic engagement is visiting local parks, followed by contact with school board members and attending local community events. Some teens identified contact with law enforcement as their experience with civic institutions, and some follow local government or an elected official on social media.

Overall, the youth reported more positive experiences with institutions than negative experiences; however, black or LatinX respondents reported fewer positive experiences with local institutions than white respondents. The survey also revealed little direct engagement between local elected officials and their youth populations, with the least common response regarding engagement being contact with a mayor, city council member, or county commissioner.

When asked what would make youth more likely to engage, the most common response was more activities available to the community. Others said safety and security, community service, and breaking down racial barriers.

The top change respondents would like to see in their communities is reducing violence and improving safety, indicating a need for youth to feel more secure in their communities. Black and LatinX respondents were more than four times as likely as white respondents to seek improvement in safety and security.

We will implement the survey in five more communities this fall—and hopefully even more in 2022. The 2019 Georgia Civic Health Index revealed that Georgians have opportunities to improve civic engagement. By listening to our young people and working to meet their needs now, we can help ensure that the next generation of adults are engaged, informed, contributing members of our communities—an outcome that will benefit us all.

Read the post on gacities.com.

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.