Youth are the future. They are the ones who will use the transportation networks that our regional plans contemplate today. So . . . . what if we gave youth a voice in our decision-making? That was what Sacramento City Council member Jay Schenirer was thinking when he proposed a youth engagement program to SACOG’s Board of Directors.
Starting from Scratch
Some wondered how youth leadership fit into SACOG’s mission. But the value was quickly apparent. Thirty high school students from around the region dedicated one Saturday each month for six months. Together, they explored a key SACOG’s responsibilities: transportation and land use planning, affordable housing, intergovernmental relationships, and community engagement. The students also participated in SACOG Civic Lab’s design-thinking workshop on revitalizing suburban commercial corridors.
SACOG partnered with a local nonprofit (PRO Youth & Families) that had experience offering high school leadership programs. Together, they developed a teen curriculum for local and regional government planning. The students also received training on speaking, critical thinking, policy analysis, community organizing, and social justice. Workshops were arranged with elected officials, advocates, and staff. And they students also attended SACOG board meetings and met with their respective board members.
And Getting Great Results
In the end, it was the students that made the program. Their high level of engagement and understnading impressed everyone, particularly the board members. The program closed with the students presenting project concepts in their respective cities—some of which are already taking root. The City of Live Oak, for example, is considering how to develop a second community center on an existing under-used property. The idea was presented because the city’s large Latinx population lacked a venue for gatherings and cultural events. Live Oak officials were excited by the presentation because they were unaware of the problem.
The Academy has become an avenue for more inclusive dialogues. The program graduates feel heard by their local officials and are ready to engage further to improve their communities. An unexpected benefit for SACOG was the goodwill that the Academy created throughout the six-county region. Community members (even state legislators!) eagerly participated, which in turn provided more learning opportunities.
SACOG set out to empower its youth. But is also developed a great way to engage new constituencies. Most importantly, the students are poised to engage in their communities today and become the leaders of tomorrow.
What the Students Said
“I gained a sense of community. I loved meeting people from different schools and learning about the issues they face in their counties.”
“YLA exposed me to passionate students and dedicated leaders.”
“Doing the Civic Lab opened my eyes to the importance of advocacy. I couldn’t begin to explain how valuable that has been for me.”
“This was such an eye-opening experience. I hope it continues.”
“We learned about potential careers that I didn’t ever realize were options for me.”
“I understand the complexity of the Sacramento region and the interaction between government, transportation, and planing. I can’t stress this enough, this program is so useful in deciding my career.”
“SACOG exposed me to passionate students and dedicated leaders. I feel I have grown as an individual.”
How SACOG Made it Happen
- They decided to do it—even though it had not done it before.
- SACOG consulted a local organization that had experience with youth programs. They worked together to develop an BROKEN LINK engaging curriculum (shared here for others to use).
- The Board’s support of the project allowed staff to allocate the more time. As a result, they were able to get additional funding from their community foundation, Bank of America, and the California Endowment.
- Board members committed their time to the program, attending at least one of the day trainings and made themselves available to the students
- Conducted outreach to schools, school board representatives, and principals, and focused recruitment efforts on disadvantaged and underrepresented schools and populations.
- Good News Update. SACOG staff just informed us that the program is fully funded for another year!
SACOG Board Member Jay Schenirer (far left) and James Corless (far right) with SACOG's first cohort of the Youth Leadership Academy. Not pictured is our own Board Member from SACOG, Council Member Tim Onderko from Loomis who also provided the background for this story.
About the Author: Rebecca True is a graduate student in regional planning at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She is doing a residency of sorts with CALCOG this over the summer.