Working in partnership with your community’s young people is an essential step toward creating a healthy, vibrant downtown, now and in the future. Here are five ways to get the youth-engagement ball rolling.
- Remember what it was like to be 15 years old. Creating successful youth-adult partnerships means taking time to get to know each other and build trusting relationships. One way to do that is to share stories with youth about what kinds of experiences, values, interests and feelings you had when you were young. Think back to when you were 15: what was important to you? What made you different? Who were the young people who participated actively in your community? What were they like and what did they do? Share your experiences and find common ground with young people in your community.
- Create “gracious space” for youth-adult interactions. It is often difficult for young people to join in adult-dominated conversations about planning, visioning or economic development, but adult leaders can help by consciously making the spirit and setting of meetings youth-friendly. Gracious space begins with holding meetings in places and at times that are accessible to young people, and includes using meeting formats that facilitate equal interaction, such as circles. Together, groups can define what gracious space, in which everyone feels safe and supported, means for them, so genuine ideas and feelings emerge from the conversation.
- Ask youth to take you on a tour of downtown. “Tours that are guided by young people are consistently one of the most valuable methods for understanding their perspectives on and use of the local environment,” writes David Driskell in his book, Creating Better Cities with Children and Youth. In pairs or small groups, hit the pavement with teenagers who spend time downtown. Where do different groups of young people hang out? What places do they avoid? What would make downtown more appealing to them? Show your town’s youth you value their presence and participation downtown by exploring it with them.
- Feed young people’s desire to be community leaders. Don’t know where to find youth who are interested in helping improve your downtown? Consider hosting a community dinner designed to bring young leaders to the table. Work with local food vendors and farmers to create a home-grown menu and promote the event through schools, community centers, after-school programs and places where young people are employed. Create a comfortable atmosphere in which youth and adults can get to know each other. Highlight issues or problems that concern youth in your community and offer opportunities for ongoing participation on downtown committees or working groups.
- Give youth space for self-expression in the interest of community. Public art is an important component of placemaking, creating vibrant and distinctive downtowns. Make use of vacant lots and storefronts, blank walls and open spaces by inviting young people to create public art they design. Young leaders affiliated with creative organizations or classes can develop public art projects that speak to their values, cultural identities and community-building aspirations.
For more ideas, exercises and assistance, attend the “Leadership in Youth” plenary session at the DCI conference in September, and the November Downtown Institute in Brighton on youth entrepreneurship and young people’s roles in economic restructuring. Also look for DCI’s soon-to-be-published series of workbooks that follow on this year’s Downtown Institute youth engagement series.
Darcy Varney Kitching, M.Ed., MURP, is an educator and an urban planner interested in the development of child- and youth-friendly communities.