Aspen explores options for getting young adults involved in civic affairs
August 8, 2012
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council on Monday generally agreed to take steps to encourage more young adults to get involved in the government process.
During a work session, council members asked city staff to investigate the possibility of setting up monthly meetings between a councilman and local residents between 20 and 40 to discuss their concerns about civic affairs. They also are interested in helping young adults to form an advisory committee that would provide input on various issues to the council.
The committee, once formed, would not have city staff or council oversight, according to Mitzi Rapkin, community relations director for the city of Aspen.
“It’s not something that staff would take a part in once it’s formed,” Rapkin said.
Many young adults have voiced concerns about the difficulty of attending council meetings – regular meetings usually take place twice monthly, on Mondays, beginning at 5 p.m. Council members directed staff to explore the feasibility of a system in which people could send comments to the council in real time while viewing the meetings on television, she said.
“The city clerk or another staff person would get the comment while the meeting is happening and then say what the comment is,” Rapkin said.
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According to a recent memorandum from Rapkin to the council, other ideas to engage youth in governmental affairs also are being floated, including the creation of a “Civic Engagement 101” class and the offer of child care services in a room at City Hall for parents who want to attend public meetings.
A year ago at their annual retreat, council members named a desire to increase young-adult participation in civic affairs as one of their top 10 goals. With prodding from councilmen Steve Skadron and Adam Frisch, a similar goal was developed at this year’s retreat.
“The city of Aspen places a high priority on engaging the public in civic discourse,” Rapkin’s memo says. “Public participation is essential in having a thriving political atmosphere. It is clear from city meetings, representation on city boards and commissions and participation in public engagement sessions that the 20- to 40-year-old demographic is underrepresented.”
In an effort to better understand the barriers to civic involvement as a step toward finding solutions, the city sought input from more than 500 young adults in Aspen. Here is a small sampling of their comments, from the memo:
• “Engaging in government feels hopeless; how do I even push my agenda?”
• “We are programmed to think globally.”
• “Council has a bad reputation.”
• “Endless council meetings, have to sit for hours before they get to my issue; they take too long on each issue.”
• “Government gets set in certain ways.”
• “Hard to have ownership in town where you don’t own a home.”
Jill Teehan is an attorney who last year co-founded the Aspen Democracy Initiative, a group that encourages young adults to become more aware of public policy and the political process. She said she’s worked with city officials to promote the group’s activities and has offered ideas for getting more people involved in civic affairs.
Helping to set up an advisory committee, and letting it function on its own, is a good step for the city, Teehan believes.
“That’s a great way for the city to say, ‘We’re not going to baby-step you through everything and do it for you,’ because ultimately civic engagement is the responsibility of each person,” she said. “It would at least open the door in recognition that we have a problem here, because young people are the future leaders of our community, and by and large they are very uninvolved.”
Teehan said older adults with children who own a home tend to be more involved because they feel they’ve got an investment in the community.
“Younger people don’t have that kind of understandable, a sensible connection,” she said. “And lot of it is that younger people are really disillusioned with the process and with the leaders they see. I’m not speaking on the local level but generally.
“It’s across the board among all generations, not just young adults. We’re seeing a total lack of confidence in our leadership, along with complete vitriol and polarization. It’s just such a turnoff – who wants to get involved with that?”
Teehan noted that while government participation is not a high priority for young adults, studies show that they are more involved in volunteerism than ever before. She suggested that one reason why they aren’t as involved in government as they were in previous decades might be that civics classes, once a common part of U.S. public and private school curriculums, are rarely offered anymore.