Good citizenship doesn’t begin when you turn 18, nor are all those who are under the voting age oblivious to the local politics of their communities. Young people, with their passion and energy, are an ideal audience for local leaders looking to engage with the next generation of change-makers, but too often political conversations and community-wide civic action are conducted in realms that are not immediately accessible or welcoming to youth. The 2010 census reported a full one third of Holyoke residents are under age 20, positioning youth as a formidable piece of the city’s pie, and one who needs to be as civically engaged as possible.
The Holyoke Youth Commission has been working to bridge this gap for over ten years, hosting trainings and events with youth civic engagement in mind. Prominent among these has been the Youth andidate Forum, held each election cycle as an opportunity for Mayoral, City Council and School Committee candidates to meet with youth and answer their questions directly. This fall, the Youth Commission is planning another Candidate Forum and working furiously on ways to engage their peers in this election cycle. Many young people aren’t sure how these local government positions and initiatives taken by local leaders can practically affect their daily lives or make substantive changes to the issues they care about. The Youth Commission is looking to educate other youth about how local government works, and encourage them to ask tough questions even though they may not be able to actually vote yet. Youth are still enormously influential to the political scene, volunteering for campaigns and discussing issues and candidates with their friends and family, and the Youth Commission is committed to ensuring that teens in Holyoke have the information they need to have informed discussion on the issues critical to them.
To support their upcoming plans, the Youth Commission participated in a focus group on August 7th co-sponsored by Five College Community Based Learning Center and Holyoke Community College’s Gill Technology Center to explore the iCivics online curriculum as a possible tool for instructing other youth on the political process. Facilitated by CBL’s Monica Freeland and Gill’s Sarah Schmidt, the Youth Commission tested a series of educational games and reviewed them for their accessibility, engaging qualities, and learning potential. “This game made me thing about how much work it is to be the Mayor of a town,” wrote one Youth Commissioner on the anonymous evaluation form, “I think it does a really good job teaching all the parts of a local government.” Reviewing the same game, another Commissioner wrote, “I would teach other youth using this game because it definitely helps them to learn where to go if they have a public problem they want fixed.”
Another game featuing a mock candidate debate drew more mixed reviews, because Youth Commissioners were frustrated that only canned questions were available to put to the candidates: “[My least favorite part of this game] was having to pick a question from them when I wanted ask one of my own,” wrote one reviewer, while another listed “Having to choose only one question for each topic” as the part they liked the least. The Youth Commissioners were generally most critical of game simulations where there was no opportunity to address personal concerns with fictional city governments, reinforcing that popular opinions about the disengagement of youth on local issues are unfounded. The Youth Commission is looking forward to continuing to explore iCivics this election season, and to the possibility of facilitating other youth using these games and lesson plans as tools. If you’d like to collaborate with the Youth Commission on iCivics in fall 2013, email us for more information!