Northfield's new bike path looked great on paper.
The planning commission was about to sign off the new stretch of trail when one person with a seat at the table noticed something that everyone else had missed.
The trail ran by the alternative high school. But there was no trail spur in the plans to give students access.
"Light bulbs went off for the planning commission," said Meleah Follen, youth engagement director at the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative. "'Yeah, why are we putting in a bike trail if you can't use it to get to school?' And no one had seen it."
The one planning commission member who had seen it was another high school student.
"If you're thinking, 'Why would they need a youth on a planning commission?'" said Follen, who oversees the city's Youth on Boards program. "That's why."
There are more than 90 students serving on more than 30 community boards, councils and committees right now.
They consult with the mayor and the school board. You'll find them at work at the Economic Development Authority, the Human Rights Commission, Housing & Redevelopment, Parks & Recreation, Arts & Culture Commission, the Northfield Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, the Environmental Quality Commission, the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Steering Committee and the Library Board.
Youth on Boards members advise the Historical Society, the Arts Guild, the YMCA, the League of Women Voters and the United Way. They study financials, adhere to Robert's Rules of Order. They commit to show up, listen carefully and speak up.
And when they speak, the boards listen.
"We do have a lot of opinions we'd like to share," said Northfield High School senior Amelia Arnold. "If given the space, we will share it."
Last year, she had an idea — and worked until that idea became school district policy.
When the school board signed off on Policy 950, Arnold read the district's first land acknowledgment into the public record:
The Northfield School District recognizes that we reside on the homeland of the Wahpekute Tribe of the Dakota Nation. We acknowledge the wrongdoings, previous and ongoing, and strive to repair and strengthen our relations with Indigenous peoples.
"It's not a short process. It took us an entire school year," she said. The students chose the language, researched terminology and worked with the school district policy committee.
"And now," she said, "we have this really great policy."
At the start of the school year, a school-wide announcement went out: If you're interested in getting better connected with your community, sign up with Youth on Boards.
Northfield senior Collin Thomas-Green signed up. Now he leads the events and programming subcommittee of the Mayor's Youth Council and is doing a deep dive on a proposed low-income housing project before the City Council.
"It's not every day, in every town in the U.S., that youth get this much of an impact," he said. "If we talk to the mayor, if we go to the City Council meetings and actually speak up, there's no doubt in my mind that they actually take that into account."
Thomas-Green is looking forward to an upcoming forum between the Youth Council and Northfield police. He has questions about the department's policy on body cameras.
"The youth are not a small demographic," he said. "Most adults are listening."
If you're going to talk about policies that affect youth, you should start by listening. Youth On Boards-style programs around Minnesota aim to do just that.
One hour north of Northfield, dozens of students in grades 8 through 12 serve on the Minneapolis Youth Congress. Motto: "No decisions about us without us."
The St. Paul City Council just approved the newest members of the city's Youth on Boards program last week. Look for them on the Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Commission. The Business Review Council. The Capital Improvement Budget Committee.
"When you believe in kids, you help them develop their skills, and you give them the practice — they can do pretty amazing things," said Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann. "Many teenagers are altruistic. They're looking to make their community a better place."
Northfield's Youth on Boards program has been going strong since its start as a Mayor's Youth Council in 2006. Over the years, Hillmann said, his students have changed the trajectory of city policy.
"I think we sometimes stereotype teenagers," he said. "When we show them we believe in them, [they] can do pretty amazing things. It gives me a tremendous amount of hope and confidence in our future."