By the time Isabel Melton cast her first vote this November, she’d already served for a year as a member of the Edina Planning Commission. Along with studying for the University of Minnesota courses she attends through Postsecondary Enrollment Options, the 18-year-old manages to review hundreds of pages of planning commission agenda packets and comprehensive plans for the city.
“I’d lived in this community for 18 years, and I realized before I joined [the commission] I had no idea about the intricacies of how a city worked,” she said. “It’s complicated material, but it’s so interesting to learn.”
Melton isn’t the only high-schooler sitting on a metro-area commission.
For several decades, St. Louis Park also has invited students onto several of its city commissions. Bloomington has at least one young adult member of its parks, human rights and sustainability commissions, and Minnetonka has a teenage member on the park board.
Edina Mayor James Hovland said creating the positions for young people has been a “win-win” for the city and the students, and has brought more benefits and ideas to the community than a more traditional model of a student advisory board or committee. Edina now has two student seats on each of its city commissions and often receives 20 to 30 applications for a position, Hovland said.
“Sometimes I wish we had more space for them, because the kids we turn away are so talented and impressive,” he said.
City officials are quick to clarify that the students applying for these positions aren’t just looking for an easy resume builder or an early jump on a political career. Many of them aren’t even planning on going into politics.
Rather, the students poring over city documents and chiming in on topics like sustainability, affordable housing and long-term transportation plans are echoing some of the same sentiments of the teenage activists making headlines in recent years: They want a seat at the table and want to be a part of planning for the future.
“There are so many young people who just want to get their voice heard, and they are jumping at opportunities like this,” Melton said.
Just this month, groups of students skipped classes to stage demonstrations targeting city councils, congressional offices and university presidents, calling for climate action. As a part of a coordinated global movement of youth activists, a September rally on the State Capitol steps also drew thousands of Minnesota students calling for government action on climate change.
Students this year also helped out on local political campaigns — Gabe Kaplan, an 11th-grader, managed the campaign for St. Louis Park council member-elect Larry Kraft, who ran on a platform of youth engagement. Kraft leads the Twin Cities-based national nonprofit iMatter, which focuses on helping youth leaders fight for climate-change solutions. Through iMatter, Kraft mentored the student group that pushed St. Louis Park to adopt the city’s climate action plan. Kaplan said he is encouraged by adults who seek out youth input. But his peers aren’t necessarily waiting for an invitation.
“Precisely because we can’t vote yet is why we have to get involved in other ways,” Kaplan said. “We can’t express our views at the ballot box until we’re 18, but we’re finding other opportunities to be heard.”
City leaders said positions on the environmental commissions often draw the most student applications.
“These kids are coming in with a purpose,” said Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris. “They’re empowered by what they are seeing happening globally with kids walking out of school for the environment or for gun legislation. … They really want to be active citizens.”
Jack Acomb, now 20 and a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, was 16 when he joined Minnetonka’s park board. His mother was a City Council member at the time, and he had an interest in politics and government.
“But I hadn’t found many opportunities to get involved up until that point,” he said, adding that the lessons he learned on the park board went far beyond any he learned in the classroom. “The park board seemed like a perfect opportunity to get a taste for what ‘real government’ was like.”
That meant representing the voice of the youth who would be using the parks and recreation being discussed during meetings. Despite large crowds at park board meetings debating the pros and cons of adding mountain biking trails to some of the city’s parks, Acomb said “there was a distinct lack of other kids in the room.”
“I was able to bridge that representation gap and speak on behalf of my fellow students and kids who had just as much of a stake in the project as anybody else.”
Amy Wang, who serves as a student community health commissioner in Edina, felt that perspective was valuable during discussions about teen vaping. “I think it’s important to have young people at the table,” she said.
Acomb agreed, saying a city government is most effective when it’s representative. Though young people can be a difficult group to engage in local politics, Acomb sees that changing as young activists work to have their ideas heard.
“There’s clearly a ton of youth interest in getting involved in government right now,” he said. “All cities have to do is provide an opportunity for those young people to engage. It’s really a symbiotic relationship.”