Youth can get involved with local government

High schools students are changing the world, starting with county government.

We have the responsibility as citizens to improve our community, our country and our world. Many individuals complain about their government, but few work to change it. In order to make changes, we need to understand the government at all levels. 4-H teaches young people how government works and connects them with decision-makers at the county, state, tribal and national levels. 4-H not only teaches youth about the process and structure of government, but also about how to influence the public policy process.

The 4-H Citizenship Academy started back in 2000 in Genesee County. Michigan State University Extension staff Dave Fenech and Brad Harnick met with local educators and the Genesee County Board of Commissioners. In K-12 education, students learn a great deal about federal government, a tiny bit about state government and almost nothing about local or tribal government. MSU Extension developed the 4-H Citizenship Academy to change that.

Local government has a huge impact on the lives of young people and communities. Public safety, whether a big box store will move in next door and public health issues such as restaurant inspections, are all determined by local government. 4-H Citizenship Academy takes high school-aged youth from across the county and connects them with county government. The students sit with their commissioners during a board meeting, meet with the prosecutor, clerk, treasurer and representatives from the Road Commission, Drain Commission, Health Department, Parks and Recreation, Community Action Resource Department, and tour the jail and other local agencies. Youth also participate in 4-H Capitol Experience, where they connect with state legislators and learn about state government.

The program has been replicated in at least six other Michigan counties with three tribal governments, as well as in Florida and Pennsylvania. In 2015, four 4-H Citizenship Academies were held. The Genesee County program had 11 participants. There were 12 participants in the program with Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi and Calhoun County. There were six participants in the program with Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Emmet County. There were nine participants from the Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties program.

Evaluation data from the program showed that all participants increased their knowledge about local government, community issues and how citizens can work within government. Some participants were interested in running for public office or working in government based on their experience.

Some quotes about the program from evaluations:

  • “The program showed more about local government than anything I had ever been taught.”
  • “It has showed me that not only bad can come from politics!”
  • “I know now I can actually make a difference in my community, and not have it brushed off because I am young.”
  • “This has impacted me to help make a difference and let others know they can too.”

Youth can change the world in a way that no other group can. They have innovative ideas, exuberant energy and are unencumbered by the cynicism of many adults. We believe that combining the assets of youth with skills 4-H can teach them makes youth better prepared to create their future.