Engaging younger generations in the civic process can be a challenging endeavor. There are, however, options for municipalities that are interested to try. Many Pennsylvania boroughs have adopted junior member programs to help engage youth with local government and inspire community commitment. Here is how a municipality might structure a program of its own.
Junior Leadership programs vary in structure and organization across the state, but at their core, they empower middle school, high school, or college-age students to get involved with local government. Many programs are run like internships for the participating students to give them as much exposure to the processes and role of local government as possible. Students attend monthly or seasonal meetings, budget sessions and public hearings, and participate in community events like parades or cookouts. The goal is to showcase how local governments work behind the scenes and inspire younger generations to work in their communities and appreciate the role of local government.
Junior Leadership programs are particularly important to Pennsylvania, given the rising levels of “out” migration in the Commonwealth among younger individuals between 24-35, as observed by the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs (PSAB). A positive experience working in local government can inspire young Pennsylvanians to stay in the area after graduation and perhaps begin their own careers in civil service. The opportunity for mentoring and educating younger individuals is critical for encouraging future community service both in and out of the municipality.
In order to get started and establish a program, municipalities may pass a resolution authorizing them to participate. The PSAB offers a sample resolution form on its website for boroughs looking to participate in PSAB’s program. It can be found at: https://boroughs.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/NEWSampleResolution.pdf. After such a resolution is passed, the municipality should establish how it would like to run the program. The PSAB offers some recommendations and considerations for parameters of the program. These recommendations include (1) giving priority to residents who are likely to remain in the municipality after college; (2) establishing selection criteria for candidates of high school or college age; (3) adopting a “Junior Council Person Pledge;” (4) serving a suggested term of one or two years; (5) allowing more than one Junior Council Person may serve at a time; (6) requiring attendance at monthly borough council meetings, budget sessions, and other “special” meetings as appropriate for the age or maturity of the student; and (7) encouraging students to sit with the council and actively participate, including observing all borough council meeting rules; but importantly. Students may not vote, however, nor attend executive sessions.
Municipalities might also first consider what activities students could participate in, given the limited nature of their availability with other obligations for school or extracurriculars. Likewise, municipal officials should consider their own availability in terms of mentoring, the number of students they could feasibly take on, and the number and types experiential offerings available to students that will keep them engaged in the process and keep their interests piqued. Further, municipalities should strive to make student members feel included and understood. Both mentoring and educational experiences are generally more valuable to students when mentors are willing to listen to their concerns and ideas and treat them as a colleague.
Municipalities can also use students to engage their community. To this end, students can be a helpful social media resource to broadcast events or updates. Students could also offer feedback or testimonials at the end of their term for the municipality to use as “advertisements” for future students. Additionally, municipalities can advertise the program at career fairs or during assemblies at local schools to garner student interest while also taking the opportunity to educate other students about what the local government does. As further community outreach, municipalities could partner with high schools to offer the program as a means to complete a senior or junior project, complete a service requirement, or earn class or internship credits toward graduation.
Municipalities considering offering such a program should investigate their options with the type of program they seek to implement and how they would like to run it. Overall, it can be a rewarding experience for municipalities and students alike. For more information, municipalities can explore: https://boroughs.org/subpage.php?link=Junior-Council%20Person%20Program.
With contribution from Sarah Rothermel, J.D. Widener Law Commonwealth.