Citizenship academies: Opening doors to government and politics for youth – Part 1

Government comes alive to youth through hands-on learning at the county level.

Why start a 4-H Citizenship/Leadership Academy?

Through a variety of media and social networking, youth today are learning more and more about politics, but are they learning about government?  With the recent barrage of commercials on television due to primary elections, politics has not left a good impression for our citizenry or our youth. If we allow our impressions of government and politics to be formed by 30-second sound bites and negative campaign commercials, what do we really know about our government? Enter 4-H Citizenship and Leadership Academies. Schools teach government and youth have a basic understanding of the workings of the federal government but limited knowledge of county government. Local government will affect them on a more personal level, and they will have a greater sense of being able to have an impact on their circumstances, especially if they have knowledge about the limitations or extent of county government.

Academies allow youth to not only witness, but often take part in, county government. The hands-on approach affects how youth see their communities and underlines the need to be responsible citizens. MSU Extension has been involved in the education of county commissioners for over 35 years through the New County Commissioner training, co-sponsored by the Michigan Association of Counties. The training is held biannually in November following statewide elections.

It seems only natural for the MSU Extension 4-H Youth Development program to work with county young people to help them understand government in their own backyard. When one considers that these same young people may be the ones making decisions as commissioners or fulfilling other governmental roles, it only makes sense.

Another skill that accompanies Citizenship and Leadership Academies is service learning. Youth can identify a concern they have for residents in their county, often from a unique perspective, and problem-solve a solution. Initially they identify and focus on one or two county concerns, research those concerns and determine if they can make a difference. Then they present their ideas to the commissioners, often in a special meeting, and a discussion follows as to why they can or cannot resolve this issue. Youth learn that their concern may be beyond the jurisdiction of the commission. At other times the cause is deemed just and doable and youth are given the blessing of the board. It is a great learning experience for both the youth and the commissioners. In one such face-to-face meeting, a commissioner addressed the youth after their meeting by saying, “I have worried about this country because I didn’t think our youth cared about government, but I can clearly see we have nothing to worry about.” Those are the comments that make all the work worth the effort.

Coming next: How to start your own 4-H Citizenship/ Leadership Academy

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