By Curt Yeomans
Riverdale City Councilman Kenny Ruffin has been researching a youth council for the city since February, and he is preparing to see his vision come to fruition.
A youth council, made up of students from Riverdale and North Clayton high schools, as well as Riverdale and Sequoyah middle schools, would serve two purposes: It would give the young people an active voice in city affairs, and it would teach them about how a local government works.
"The kids are our future and we have to involve them in the decision-making process, and we have to value their voice," Ruffin said. "This is our commitment to them, and a way to show we value their future."
The city council will vote on establishing a 13-member committee of local students at its meeting on Sept. 22, said Ruffin. If approved, the council will begin its once a month meeting schedule in November. It is patterned after youth councils in other cities, such as Savannah and another Riverdale -- Riverdale City, Utah.
The National League of Cities' (NLC) City Platform for Strengthening Families and Improving Outcomes for Children and Youth also helped formulate a structure and focus for the council in Clayton County's Riverdale.
The platform lays out guidelines for strengthening communities by looking at family- and children-related programs. Children are five to 10 times more likely to stay in school, stay out of trouble, and grow up to be involved in their communities, if they have effective education, caring adults, community service opportunities, "a healthy start," and safe places to live their lives, according to the NLC's web site.
Two student-centered areas of the platform, which the NLC's web site lists as "essential 'infrastructure' for sustained progress," are meetings of a mayor and/or city council with the local school board or superintendent to look at mutual priorities, and developing collaborative action plans, and finding ways to support youth engagement and leadership through a youth council or youth summits."
As a result of the school system's ongoing accreditation crisis, Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, and the other five mayors in the county, have met regularly with Corrective Superintendent John Thompson in an effort to offer support to the school system. The establishment of Riverdale's youth council would be one more step toward meeting the ideals laid out in the NLC's platform.
Wynn-Dixon said local politicians have, for years, engaged in "lip battling" -- making promises of what they plan to do to improve their communities, but not doing enough to follow through on their promises.
"It's time to put your money where your mouth is," said Wynn-Dixon. "I am hoping it [the youth council] rejuvenates political leaders, and lets them know the babies are watching us."
The council's makeup will be broken into four members from Riverdale High School; four members from Riverdale Middle School; three members from Sequoyah, and two members from North Clayton. The breakdown was based on the number of Riverdale residents enrolled at each school, said Ruffin. City and school leaders will work together to choose youth council members.
"Nothing is more important to the health of our democracy than the active engagement of young people in representative government at the local level," states the NLC's web site.
Another goal for the council is to increase voter turnout in future elections. Ruffin called the 21 percent turnout for the July 15 primary election "pitiful" and said the key to improving turnout is to begin teaching the importance of voting to children as early as middle school.
The city councilman also said the council will help teenagers understand that local elections impact their lives quicker than national elections. "Hopefully, not only will they get involved as they get older, but their parents will get involved now," he added.
On the net:
National League of Cities: http://www.nlc.org/