Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
These high schoolers take their local government very seriously.
Brenda Platt gobbled up a lot of the time allocated for the June meeting of the Takoma Park Youth Council. A concerned citizen, Platt is the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that lobbies local governments to adopt composting, among other environmental pushes. Platt detailed at length her failed efforts to launch a composting pilot through Montgomery County Public Schools, which seven of the council’s eight members attend. For at least half an hour, she outlined her tactical agenda and led the assembly through the Kafkaesque panoply of excuses that Maryland schools had given for shooting down her project.
This was local government at its finest: a council held hostage by one constituent’s exhaustive accounting of all the Byzantine frustrations keeping her vision from becoming reality. It was local leadership at its zenith, too, when Emma Morganstein, 17, vice chairperson for the Takoma Park Youth Council, cut through the crap. “This is an amazing discussion,” she said, “but unfortunately, we have to wrap up.”
Officially, newsletters and composting were the main items on the agenda of this gathering of middle- and high-school students appointed to lead and represent their peers in Takoma Park, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., well known for its progressive bent. A divisive downtown development was another bullet point, one that has also occupied the adult city council. But the first point of order taken up for the meeting, held in the town’s community center, involved pronouns.
”I’m trans,” said Council member Elliot Davey, whose name on the council roster is Althea. “I’m non-binary specifically. Some of you guys know that, some of you don’t. One thing that none of you know, I’m in the process of changing my name. I’m changing my name to Elliot, and I wanted to share that so we could put [my name] on the agenda.”
That was that. Following a couple of polite clarifying questions, the Takoma Park Youth Council moved on to pressing matters: an exciting prospect of talking with peers in Morocco, the bog of local composting. A fifth-grader from Piney Branch Elementary spoke about asking local restaurants like Roscoe’s and Mark’s Kitchen to give up plastic drinking straws. The council had work to do.
Part after-school club, part political action committee, the Takoma Park Youth Council is an experiment in democracy. Five years ago, the city became the first in the nation to lower its voting age, giving 16- and 17-year-olds the opportunity to vote in city elections. All but one of the members of the Takoma Park Youth Council present at the June meeting were able to exercise their franchise last November. For these civics-oriented teens, local government matters just as much, if not more, than national elections.
And the Youth Council gives these councilors an opportunity to shape the vote on decisions that affect them.
“What’s been very important to the Youth Council right now is establishing relationships and making our presence known,” says Kiran Kochar McCabe, 16, chair of the Youth Council. “It’s the first year we’ve been in existence, which is why we’re not as focused on policies, and that sort of change, right now, this year. We’re focused a lot more on reaching out to youth and really understanding what they’re interested in.”
The Ward 6 representative will be a senior at Montgomery Blair High School next year. To describe her as a go-getter would be a rash understatement: She got her first Huffington Post byline in the eighth grade. As the Youth Council’s inaugural leader, she is building a foundation first, establishing protocols and cementing communication strategies. The Youth Council issued its first newsletter in June, with topics ranging from a post-mortem on a D.C. metro area student climate summit to the status of repairs on area play structures damaged during a recent storm.
Four of the council’s members (McCabe, Morganstein, Davey, and Ward 2’s Adelaide Harris) will be seniors next year; others range from 13 to 16 in age. Among teen legislatures across the country, the Takoma Park Youth Council might be the most powerful, since its members can do more than just advise on issues—they can vote on them.
“In terms of really doing engagement, and reaching out to other young people in the community, they’ve put together a survey to talk to other young people to find out what are the issues they want to be working on,” says Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart.
It's really cool to see how many businesses are giving up their single-use plastic straws in favor of more environmentally friendly options! #takomadoesntsuck— Takoma Park Youth Council (@YouthTakoma) June 28, 2018
The Takoma Park Youth Council comprises young representatives from most of the city’s six wards. The council emerged from a project called Difference Makers, a student-led nonprofit formed by Takoma Park Middle School students in 2009. The group’s sponsor, science teacher Bryan Goehring, drafted a charter in spring 2017 with the help of students (and the mayor). The City Council ratified the charter last fall and opened applications for representatives, who serve by appointment.
“We looked through other youth councils across the nation and what their charters looked like,” says Davey, 16, a representative from Ward 1 who first heard about the proposal at a City Council meeting—where they are a regular.
(Note: CityLab received permission from parents to speak with the teens quoted here before attending the Takoma Park Youth Council’s June meeting.)
As McCabe is quick to note, the Youth Council has zeroed in on outreach since its launch. Christiane Yimgnia, a member of the Takoma Park Police Explorer Post, joined the council as a liaison between the two youth organizations. (She heard about the council in AP French class.) The Youth Council conducted a survey of area students that indicated that policing and public transportation are two strong areas of interest. Respondents also wanted a youth town hall, so the council scheduled one for October 14.
“Most of the people involved in activism are rich white people, when in reality that’s not who Takoma Park is,” Morganstein said. She might be right. The city is slightly less than half white, according to census figures; one-third of the population is foreign born. The median home value is just north of a half a million dollars, which might explain why 49 percent of the city’s population rents. Activists aside, a plurality of Takoma Park residents are wealthy and white.
“I really hope with this youth town hall, more of the youth who aren’t traditionally involved will feel more welcomed, and won’t view us—people in government—as a closed-off club,” Morganstein says.
Even as the council is sussing out its constituents’ priorities, it’s also reaching beyond Takoma Park’s borders. Morganstein and George Ashford, 15, a member from Ward 2, attended a recent conference of the National League of Cities. There they spoke with members of the Austin Youth Council, which is trying to lower the voting age for residents of the Lone Star capital.
That idea is catching on in the D.C. area. In 2015, Hyattsville, a suburb next door to Takoma Park, became the second municipality in the U.S. to lower its voting age to 16; Greenbelt, another Maryland suburb, followed suit earlier this year. Berkeley, California, allows voters as young as 16 to participate in school board elections.
Not to be outdone, D.C. Council member Charles Allen introduced a bill in April to lower the voting age in the District to 16—for both local and federal elections. That latter distinction would be unprecedented (although California considered a ballot measure lowering the age a notch for general elections). The bill appears to have the support of a majority of the D.C. Council. Eventually, teen advocates would like to expand voting rights nationwide.
The Takoma Park Youth Council is model local government turned pro. In fact, the group might just improve matters locally. For example, the council found its own angle on Takoma Junction, a hotly debated proposal to do something with a downtown parking lot owned by the city. It’s an argument that’s been going on for two decades. While the city is known for its left-leaning politics (local wags often call the suburb “The People’s Republic of Takoma Park”), its residents can go unimaginably not-in-my-backyard over the prospect of change. Adults in the community have even discussed recalling various officials over the prospect of adding a two-story mixed-use building. The Youth Council, on the other hand, stated flatly its support for moving forward with Takoma Junction, offering this additional insight:
With increased foot traffic to the junction, there will most likely be more young children walking along Carroll Avenue, a busy road. The location of the public space proposed by [Neighborhood Development Company] is right next to the street, and if children stop to play or run around, it appears to us to present a serious safety risk. Having more automobile traffic and large trucks parking in the nearby layby may cause additional danger. Another concern of ours is making sure that the public bus stop is not adversely affected by the changes at the junction. Many teenagers rely on public transportation and the bus system to be more independent in getting around the county. Having a usable stop at the junction will be important to people of our age.
Even in places where teenagers don’t yet have any right to vote—and that’s most places—a youth council could still help draw attention to issues that adults might overlook or ignore. Young people living in the suburbs of D.C. tend to focus their ire on the federal government, McCabe says, but she wants to draw their attention closer to home. “Especially city government,” McCabe said. “It’s the level of government that makes policies that most directly affect you.”
The Takoma Park Youth Council is still figuring out what those hard policy issues will be. Davey says that it would be great for the council to do some work to expand trans rights. “I am hoping that next year, when we begin to really focus in on policy, we can advocate the school board to include more information on gender identity in middle- and high-school health curricula,” Davey said.
With school out, the Takoma Park Youth Council is taking a recess. McCabe has a personal priority in mind for her second term.
“I want for the next newsletter to establish some responsibilities for everyone, because I ended up doing a lot,” she said. “Which is fine, because I enjoy it, but I have a life, sometimes.”