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Create a Seat at the Policymaking Table for Young Americans

There are strong models for combating youthful disillusionment. San Francisco’s Youth Commission should be replicated across the country and a White House Office of Young Americans could address issues that affect everyone.

San Francisco Youth Commission
Members of the San Francisco Youth Commission. Young people have played a key advisory role in the city’s government since the commission was established in 1996. (Photo: San Francisco Youth Commission)
Interest in young people as a distinct political group has exploded over the last few years. Some of this interest has focused on the positive, highlighting high levels of voter registration and political engagement. However, there are real concerns about the potential of political apathy and pessimism and its impact on the 2024 elections.

As members of Gen Z who’ve been politically active throughout our teenage and young adult lives, we’re excited to see people finally paying attention. We also want people to understand that there are answers to the real questions older generations have about how to harness this political power in a positive way — and that young people themselves should be front and center in addressing them.

There are already models and proposals for combating youth disillusionment that can and should be replicated at all levels of government, such as establishing an Office of Young Americans in the White House and embedding youth advisory councils into city governments.

Government organizations across the country can do more to appeal to young people and give them meaningful on-ramps into their work. A great way of doing that is to invest in youth advisory councils. They create pipelines not just for informed voters but also for future candidates. San Francisco youth have proved the concept over almost three decades. The city established its Youth Commission in 1996, and since then young people have played a key role in local government.

Their voices have been instrumental in shaping city policies including free public transit for young people and extending the vote in school board races to residents without immigration papers. From closing a dangerous city jail to expanding Miranda rights in the criminal justice system, they have become powerful and influential, advising the City Council and the mayor's office on a host of transformational policies. They are now pushing for the expansion of youth commissions across the state and the country.

On the federal level, YouthinGov, a coalition of more than 80 organizations fighting for youth representation in the Biden administration, was on Capitol Hill this month asking members of the House Future Forum Caucus to co-sponsor H.R. 4444, which would establish an Office of Young Americans in the White House.

Such an office would provide the infrastructure to deal with issues that impact all Americans, but especially young people: issues like the economy, where Gen Z has been hit harder than other groups; climate change, the impacts of which are severely impacting Gen Z’s mental health; health care, where too many of us are facing a crisis; and gun violence, where almost every member of Gen Z knows at least one person who has been injured or killed by firearms. By establishing an Office of Young Americans at the federal level, the White House will also take a lead for governments around the country.

Nothing about our generation’s relationship with government and politics is inevitable. We've taken to the streets and college campuses to speak up on issues that matter to us over recent years. Now, we are demanding a seat at the table and sustainable infrastructure for our generation and beyond to be involved in the policymaking process. When young people have a substantive connection to government, policymakers are forced to grapple with how their decisions will impact our nation beyond any one news cycle or election.

We need to go beyond traditional civics curriculums and start viewing civics education as a means of building trust between citizens and government through active participation. Embedding youth leadership into our institutions is the most impactful way to ensure that young people feel invested in government. Establishing the Office of Young Americans and more local government youth commissions and advisory councils will ensure that our young people get the tools they need from government to build a better, brighter future for the next generation.

Aliza Lifshitz is the national deputy political director for Voters of Tomorrow and the director of the YouthinGov Coalition. Alondra Esquivel is the director of the San Francisco Youth Commission.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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