Ask teenagers what they think about their city’s local government and you’re likely to field either blank stares or a myriad of complaints.
Their attitudes toward those in charge might have soured from a tainted interaction with local police, from the thought that their city is lacking in youth services or from a general distrust toward city officials who say they know what is best for teens without taking the time to listen to young people’s perspectives.
But the City of Evanston is attempting to change the way it interacts with local youth by lending attention to a group of high school students who act as representatives for people their age and intermediaries with an open line straight to the ear of Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.
The Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, as these students are known, can already claim responsibility for initiating at least two well-known recent city policies; the ideas that lead to the recent and the to Evanston teens last summer both came from these students.
The group meets bimonthly in a fourth floor Evanston Township High School classroom. Its core comprises Tidahl and about 10 high school students, but other city officials drop in, either at the group’s request or to gain insight through a 45-minute peek into the teenage mind. At the group’s second and most recent meeting, held on Nov. 30, Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington and Assistant to the City Manager Joseph McRae were both in attendance.
Part of the group’s effectiveness is seemingly due to generational blind spots. What is second nature to these students is sometimes entirely foreign to those in charge.
When attempting to promote and advertise the police department’s text-a-tip hotline, a recently-implemented system made so residents could alert Evanston police through text messages, Tisdahl had the city create several thousand pens with the new hotline number printed on the side. However, a recent informal survey by Evanston Patch and almost none recalled seeing the corresponding pens.
But, at the November meeting, more than six months after the hotline began, when Tisdahl posed the question of how the city could most easily teach students the number, she had an answer in a matter of seconds.
The solution? Make an announcement through the school’s PA system, said junior Sean Pitt, and have all the teachers tell students to save it on their cell phones right then and there.
Simple. Effective. But something that for one reason or another never occurred to the mayor. A few more questions from Tisdahl revealed that she knew little about the cell phone use habits of teens. Where she was oblivious the students knew instantly.
Similarly, when the mayor said that the city had trouble getting the word out about its , the students related how almost no one their age visited the City of Evanston website, but that many ETHS students visited the school website, and that if the school put a link to city summer program information then word might reach more people.
But the meetings aren’t all about exchanging ideas and closing a generational divide. Sometimes they also act as a way to clear the air when students might take issue with something the city has done.
One student took the opportunity of meeting Chief Eddington to report and inquire about police activity he had witnessed over the summer that had been bothering him.
“I live on Lemar [Avenue],” said junior Geron Williams, “and this summer the paddy wagon drove around and kids would be at the park and [the police] would come start running toward you for no reason.”
Whether Williams was satisfied with the response he received from Eddington is unclear, but in the past he might not have been able to voice his complaint at all.
And now other high school students who are aware of the group’s existence have begun to seek out members in the school hallways to relate their own stories of when they saw what they perceived to be police harassment or talk about where they think the city should be focusing new efforts toward reducing violence or make a suggestion for new youth programs they would like to see.
“These kinds of conversations were happening regardless,” said junior Joshua Easington, the student partially responsible for the group’s foundation, “but now they’re more constructive and now we have an outlet for them.”
In fact, many of the group’s most important discussions occur away from the bimonthly meetings, whether through email chains or text message conversations or casual face-to-face meet ups.
These side discussions act as a way to prepare before talking to the mayor so that all the student representatives can be on the same page, but they might also yield better ideas than the group meetings, as some students still seemed nervous to talk openly in front of the mayor.
At the November meeting, the generational gap was made apparent in more than one way, as the conversation occasionally seemed strained, less flowing and more itemized. Productive, but not necessarily the environment to open up about some half-thought-out, out-of-left-field, I-might-embarrass-myself-by-saying-this-out-loud idea. Especially in front of the mayor.
Tisdahl made an effort to assure the students that she was very open to criticism.
“Feel free to tell me [programs] didn’t work,” Tisdahl said. “Just because it’s something I tried, doesn’t mean that I want to hear it was good…because I don’t want to do it again next year if it wasn’t successful.”
Another issue the group will have to tackle in the future is that of its own diversity. Though the group is relatively racially diverse, almost all members are juniors in high school, and because of this, the meetings lack the perspectives of middle school kids and even younger high school students.
But the group is still in its infancy. Increased diversity and fluid discourse could come with time.
For now, the youth advisory group is still discovering a newfound power to be heard, and those involved are excited to take advantage of it.
“It lets you know that our elected officials are so accessible when your mayor is listening to people who can’t event vote,” Easington said. “And I’ve learned more about the way government works. What I’ve learned is that people generally want the same thing. They just have different ways of saying it.”
Other ideas mentioned at the November meeting include a volunteer-run safe ride car service for students who are out after curfew without a way home, a city-sponsored three-on-three basketball tournament with prizes, free open skate time for teens at Robert Crown and a city Facebook page created specifically for local youth.