Civic engagement

Minot wants to spur youth interest in local government

Getting young people to think about local government as a good place to work or serve needs to start with exposure, and the Minot City Council is contemplating how it might create those opportunities.

At a committee meeting at the end of February, council members briefly discussed some options for encouraging high school and college students to attend city meetings and other public events.

“We have to be intentional about engaging our young people,” council member Josh Wolsky said. “They are looking at a very different future in terms of the way they work and live than the generations that came before them.”

Alderman Stephan Podrygula also spoke of the importance of having a “ladder into government,” which starts with exposing young people to civic engagement.

Minot City Manager Tom Barry said city staff are developing a community engagement strategy for the city that will have a youth component.

Other local governments in North Dakota have had similar thoughts about getting young people involved.

The City of Burlington had maintained a Shadow Council for several years.

Ward County Auditor Devra Smestad, who had been city auditor in Burlington at the time, said interested high school students would be assigned to shadow certain council members, sitting with their assigned members at the meetings and assisting them with any designated tasks. They helped judge the third-grade Mayor for a Day poster contest.

One year enough students were interested that she also had a shadow as city auditor, she said. The student assisted with tasks such as preparing council materials and learned about taking minutes.

“They always had a voice at the council meeting. They just had no vote,” Smestad said.

The Garrison Chamber of Commerce’s Business Buds program for the past three years has been exposing sixth graders to the business community and has included a local government focus during city government week in April. City Hall sends representatives to the classrooms to play a Garrison government trivia game with sixth graders and seniors.

Activities such as mock interviews for first jobs, a business fair, Garrison jeopardy game and creating a Garrison business directory are among activities that take place when chamber members serving as Business Buds meet with sixth graders once a month.

“The idea behind it was we lose track of kids,” said Mike Matteson, who developed and coordinates the program. “We wanted to do something so businesses don’t forget that kids are our customers, too.”

He also had been concerned that young people were growing up without ever meeting a local business person or finding out what they do, with the same true of local government. The goal has been to encourage children to think about the opportunities that exist in their hometown, Matteson said. He said he would eventually like to expand the concept into a more in-depth program for a multi-age youth group who have an interest in learning more.

In southeastern North Dakota, Cass County established a youth commission 13 years ago that operates from September through May. Each of the 11 schools in Cass County selects two to four students from their sophomore, junior or senior classes to participate.

The Cass County Youth Commission meets once a month, starting with a get-acquainted picnic for students and parents in August. During the school year, students meet with representatives of the county departments and engage in hands-on activities, said County Treasurer Charlotte Sandvik, who had initiated the commission that now is coordinated by a nine-member committee. In addition to hearing from department heads, students get a look at the jail and detention center, learn about the work of the coroner and visit with weed and vector control officers. The experience includes a one-day trip to the Capitol in Bismarck to meet state officials.

Students participate in a leadership course with materials made available by the Extension Service and learn parliamentary procedure, electing officers for their commission. They also conduct fundraisers to support a local charity.

Sandvik said the county sought business sponsors for the first year of the program but since has included about $10,000 in its annual budget for the youth commission. The budgeted amount covers the Bismarck trip, lunches at the monthly meetings and other costs.

The county has seen the investment pay off, Sandvik said. The information gleaned by students ends up going home with them, and parents report their knowledge of county government has grown as a result, she said. Some former students have gone on to careers in law and government, and some have become involved in local political parties. One former program participant ran for the Legislature.