"Youth Councils": A Great Way to Squash Dissent
An account of my experiences with a city Youth Council and Youth Court, and how they were used to enstill a faux sense of power in the participants.
(Note: The following is a description of my experiences in/around Boise, ID - so it's not directly related to Portland, but I feel that this is probably a national problem).
As some of you may know, I currently serve on the national committee of the Green Party of the United States. What many of you may not know is that I'm 17 and took my seat on the committee at age 16. On the national committee, I enjoy full equal voting rights with all the other representatives and am treated as an adult. Whatever you think about the state of the Green Party right now, I can say that they work to put youth in positions of equal power.
If I only I could say the same with local government bodies! I'm extremely frustrated right now with what's happened...I'll explain:
At school registration last August, I stumbled upon an application form for the newly-forming Mayor's Youth Advisory Council. Thinking this was finally my chance to have a say in the city's affairs, I signed up. I thought it would be exciting to actual have a seat in a local government body and speak out in favor of progressive issues and highlight the problems I have with the way the city is being ran (and believe me, in suburban Idaho, there's plenty of them). So I ended up with a seat on the council.
What followed for the next few months was twice-a-month meetings in which we did nothing but create and modify bylaws. The only interesting thing that occured during this time was when we voted to elect council officers - I made a motion that we amend the bylaws to elect officers using a system of run-off voting. The motion wasn't seconded. (I also want to note really quickly that the council consists of 14 youth that were picked by the Mayor. Interesting enough, I'm the only person not currently serving on a school's student council - which is, need I say, even more of an example of puppet-governance).
Following months of preparing the bylaws, we were finally finished and ready to do something. So what was done on the Youth Advisory Council? Did we start issuing opinions on issues that mattered to the city's youth? Did we give advice on the state of the city's schools? Of course not...we did something much more revelant - a canned food drive! I want to note that I went a long with the proposal because it was presented as something "special" for National Service Day and as a side project. I didn't realize that it would consume the entireity of the next month's business.
We also wasted a great deal of time preparing for the Mayor's State of the City Address (sponsored by Wells Fargo), during which we sat pretty at little tables close to the stage. Our Council President gave a short 3-minute speech about giving a voice to the city's youth, etc. Then we went back to another 2 hours of listening to the Mayor talk about how we need to bring more large corporations into Meridian and how we need to continue with unabated sprawl-like growth and overcrowded schools - provided, of course - that we can sucessfully build and widen more roads.
After this was all over, I was finally fed up. I only had a short time left on the council, and I wanted us to actually *get something done*. So at the most recent meeting I proposed that we actually act like an ADVISORY committee for the city's youth and start actually passing resolutions to the city council and speaking out about issues that matter. The mayor looked a little shocked and extremely amused, and inquired as to what in the world we would possibly pass resolutions about. I stated that, as an example, we could pass a resolution calling for the city to place limits on Meridian's growth, because of the negative impact it's having on schools, transit, the environment, etc.
As the rest of the council looked on, she proceeded to tell me that the *city didn't have the authority* to limit growth, and that such a resolution would never be taken seriously. I started telling her all the facts I had an why I thought it was important. When we started talking about it as a council, everyone looked very confused and, to paraphase one council member "I don't think we know anywhere near enough about politics to pass anything like that." I started talking about things we COULD do - things we for sure knew about - like we could pass a resolution asking the city council to pass an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The mayor cut in and stated that the council "needed to build creditibility" before it started passing any resolutions, and that it was "too early since your just getting started this year". Hearing this, the other members of the council started to repeat the same thing, and I ended up being the lone voice in support of action.
So that was frustrating. But I'm not done yet. Tonight I had another fun experience with "youth empowerment" - Youth Court! It's the reason why I'm writing this tonight.
My government teacher, Mr. Knutson, was the one who told me about Youth Court, saying I'd get 25 extra credit points if I went. I didn't really care about the points, because I thought being on the jury of a court would be interesting enough.
The way I understood it at the time, Youth Court was a place were juveniles charged with minor offenses could have their cases tried, have an all-youth jury with the power to give out the sentences, with youth attorneys and prosecutors. Not quite.
We had an "orientation" period at the beginning where we were told the different types of sentences we could give as jurors and stuff like that. I found out here that all the teens being tried in youth court had already admitted their guilt and were just here to be sentenced - I was rather disturbed by that, but I thought it still gave youth a fair amount of power. I was also told that "they'd never had a hung jury" and that "decisions were made by consensus".
Anyway, after the orientation period was over, we were split into two groups, since there was 21 of us in all. Half of us would hear three cases and then go to a private room to deliberate on them, and during that time the other half would hear three more cases and then deliberate on them when we were done.
I was in the first group - and the cases we had were pretty typical. One girl had an alcohol consumption charge, and the next two cases were drug parahnelia charges related to marijuania. We heard them and went into the jury room.
All 11 of us came to an agreement on the first case - we sent the girl to counseling, made her write an essay and agreed to not give her community service. She didn't harm anyone in the commission of her "crime", so I thought it was all fairly ridiculous, but I did think she may have had an alcohol problem and therefore agreed to it.
The second case we ran into some major problems. It was a case where - horror of horrors - a kid had smoked marijuania a couple times and had a pipe in his car. I didn't see ANY reason for any punishment here - the kid was not addicted to marijuania, didn't harm anyone, didn't smoke while high, - anything. He had a 40-hour a week job and got good grades in school. So I said I supported no punishment.
The other upper-class white jurors were...err..fairly surprised and the consensus seemed to be "Well we have to give him something! He smoked pot!" I was not moved. They got angry. They said that we were *required* to give them a class. I told them that we were not given mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, only recommendations.
After awhile, one of the teenage court-workers came in to tell us we were talking too loud. They asked her if 1) We were REQUIRED to give a punishment and 2) Decisions had to be reached by consensus. The girl said that 1) We were required to give punishments 2) We didn't have to reach consensus and 3) The judge could overrule any decision we made anyway.
The third one was a shock to me. I didn't believe her - especially on the second point - since we had been told during orientation that this was done by consensus. She left, and a few minutes later a far too over-enthusiastic adult court-worker (not the judge) came in.
She told us that we HAD to give classes AND community service. The other jurors also didn't favor community service because they agreed with me that it wasn't appropriate in ethier of the cases, so they questioned why. She, an OUTSIDE SOURCE proceeded to launch into a triade about how great a punishment community service was and why we were required to give it to everyone and that it really wasn't that difficult. She also confirmed that any decision we made could be overruled or dismissed by the judge and that we didn't have to reach consensus on a decision, only a majority vote.
Now that's democracy for you! No real power, minority opinions trampled on, and strict standards and requirements for decisions. It was quite possibly the most ridiculous, undemocratic thing I've ever been through. There's nothing I hate more than giving up my time to go into what I think is a position of power - a way to improve someone's life - only to find out that hey, I'm nothing but a tool in a pre-planned plot to make someone or something look good without actually shaking things up.
I don't know if Youth Councils or Youth Courts around the country are like this, but if so, it's extremely disgusting.
I'm still on the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council, I'm not quite sure what to do about that. I was thinking of submitting a very harshly worded letter of recommendation, because I don't see what I can accomplish within the next couple meetings we have left, but I don't know. I can't introduce a formal resolution because I don't know how to write one - and I'm certainly not getting ANY help from them. I'm worried that if I attempt to raise the issues again I'll simply be met with more amused smirks from the mayor and more dumbfounded expressions from the other members of the council. Any advice here? It would be appreciated about now...
But yes, I just wanted to post this to let some of you know how undemocratic puppet "youth-controlled" bodies can be in local government - so that you can be cautious about them in the future.
- Scotty B.
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