Local government needs millennial participation

Seated in the back of the Baltimore City Council’s chambers, wearing shorts and T-shirts — a bit underdressed for the occasion, perhaps — I watched as two of my friends from high school took in their first City Council meeting, dutifully tracking the progress of every bill and resolution being debated.

I am proud to be a native Baltimorean, yet I didn’t step inside City Hall myself, or closely follow city politics, until May, when I started an internship with Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. A few Monday’s ago, I carted my friends — who were equally ignorant of our local government’s goings on — along to work with me.

After the meeting, as we exited City Hall into the humid Baltimore evening, I asked them what they thought.

“It was cool,” said Max Jacobs, 18, who will be attending Dickinson College in the fall. “I’ve never been able to see government actually happen before. I didn’t know that’s how it worked.”

Like a lot of people our age, Max has often felt disconnected from local government. I know because I have too.

Feeling detached from local government is particularly easy when you are young. As non-voting, or barely legal, members of the community, it is easy to feel as though the adults in charge will not take the time to hear your thoughts. This coupled with the fact that many simply don’t know how to get involved is a strong deterrent for kids who might want to participate.

Millennials in Adulthood, a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, found that my generation has “a different relationship with politics than other generations” and that we’re “less likely than previous generations to identify with either major political party.”

Recognizing this, lawmakers have launched several outreach efforts designed to get youth involved in improving our community and to send a message that young people are valued.

City Council members, for example, spend​ ​ hours with young people in their district schools, host field trips at City Hall and work​​ to ensure that schools have the funding they need to function properly. And the recent passage by the city’s 2018 budget show​s that local elected leadership is dedicated to young people.

And some are answering the call. Take, for example, the dozens of teenagers who attended bi-monthly meetings of the Children and Youth Fund Task Force, which was charged with creating a set of guidelines to handle the distribution of approximately $12 million in new funding for youth program. Or the 17 students who were sworn-in recently as members of the Baltimore City Youth Commission. Or the many students in their school communities who are starting clubs, attending rallies and signing petitions.

The city needs to hear youth voices, and it is not difficult to make your voice heard. Young people were a major reason the City Council was able to boost youth spending by more than $13 million. Hundreds of youth attended budget hearings, rallied in front of City Hall, and inundated their City Council members with calls and emails demanding additional funding.

It’s time more of us joined them. So to the kids my age and younger, I say get involved at City Hall. Attend a City Council session. Call and schedule meetings to talk about your priorities with your representative on the council. It’s not nearly as intimidating or as scary as you might think.

And no one knows better how to improve an after school program or other enrichment activities than the youth who are in these programs.

Julianne McFarland, a recent graduate of The Friends School of Baltimore, will attend The College of William and Mary in the fall. Her email address is juliannemcf@gmail.com.

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