Fifteen-year-old Megan Bird remembers watching the news a few years ago and wondering what exactly people were talking about as they discussed the Charlottesville City Council.
Two years later, she not only has a much better understanding of how local government works, she and a group of 14 other students on the Charlottesville Youth Council are giving the City Council concrete recommendations to improve the community.
“You get to know so much more about Charlottesville than I knew before,” Bird said. “It’s a good working experience where you talk and kind of debate with each other … it’s a good environment to learn how to work in.”
Councilor Kristin Szakos first suggested the idea of a youth council in 2012 after she attended a National League of Cities conference and met members of youth councils from other cities.
“They were so impressive and really informed the discussion at those tables with their perspective,” Szakos said. “They knew things that we didn’t know.”
The Charlottesville group was formed in January 2013 and is made up of city residents between the ages of 13 and 18. The youth council meets monthly to discuss issues that are given to them by the City Council or are brought up by the members themselves.
Charlottesville Youth Council member Kibiriti Majuto
The students go through an application process and are selected by the City Council. One of the goals of the group is to engage more youth in local government.
“We have always had high school kids who come to City Council meetings because they get credit for government class, but they stay for their required hour and then they all migrate out,” Szakos said. “I would love to think that because we have a youth council … anybody under 18 in the city [will] be free to come and speak at public meetings, call a city councilor and ask a question, take ownership.”
During the youth council’s first school year, which was only a few months because of its late start, members tried to make more people aware of the teen center at the Jefferson School City Center by holding a 3-on-3-basketball tournament.
This past year the students took on some larger issues — safety on the Downtown Mall, walkability in the city and the school funding recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission.
In May, the group presented its ideas to the City Council:
adding a blue emergency phone light system on the Downtown Mall that would connect directly to a 911 dispatcher;
adding a bike lane on Melbourne Road.
The youth council also provided recommendations based on the Blue Ribbon Commission, which was convened in 2013 to address regular funding challenges faced by city schools. The youth council supported increasing the meals tax by 1 percent and closing an elementary school.
“Something needs to happen to generate more money,” said 13-year-old Zyahna Bryant. “We were looking at what’s going to generate more money in the long run rather than something that is going to be temporary, and closing an elementary school was the best thing that we could come up with.”
“They seemed to be happy that we were talking to them although we have not heard back from them yet,” Bird said.
Szakos said she is not sure the council will provide an official response to the recommendations.
“It wasn’t so much that this is their agenda and we have to respond to it,” Szakos said. “It was really getting their input on all of these things and we’ll certainly give feedback as we start talking about these things and keep them engaged in those issues.”
The youth council has not met as a group with the City Council yet but it’s something they recommended for next year. Szakos said she would support a joint work session, and the city’s human-services planner, Gretchen Ellis, who helps to oversee the group, confirmed it would be happening this fall.
Bryant and Bird said they would like to continue focusing on Downtown Mall safety next year because it’s an issue that greatly concerns their peers.
“Downtown is a really risky place,” Bryant said. “It’s just really scary at times. If you’re down there and you’re a teenager, that’s already really risky.”
The council is currently looking to fill six slots and the application period is open until Sept. 8.
Rising sophomore Kibiriti Majuto said he has developed a better understanding of politics, as well as a greater interest in it.
“When I joined, I was more into politics in school,” Majuto said. “Then I watched the news more. [The youth council] is a great place to learn, and it’s a place where you get to improve your city and learn how to make your city a better place for everybody to live.”
Bryant, who said she would like to be a politician or lawyer, also encourages other youth to sign up because she has learned valuable advice that can help her when she makes tough decisions.
“One thing that I have learned from youth council is to come to the problem with a solution rather than just rambling on about things that we don’t like,” Bryant said. “Come up with a solution so that we can fix it faster.”