Oakland County Youth in Government Day a success

Students spend day learning about county government through hands-on experiences.

Oak Park students at Oakland County Youth in Government Day pictured with Commissioner Helaine Zack. Photo by Oakland County Government.
Oak Park students at Oakland County Youth in Government Day pictured with Commissioner Helaine Zack. Photo by Oakland County Government.

Thanks to news media, the average American citizen generally understands government at the federal level. Outside of the mainstream media exists many additional dimensions of government: state, county, city and township, to name a few. Even though local levels of government are generally more accessible to the average citizen, they can be more difficult to understand.

Oakland County has attempted to address this by offering a “Youth in Government” Day at the Oakland County Government campus each year. The 2017 Youth in Government Day was held May 15.

By taking the youth out of the classroom and into the spaces where local government happens, youth can see first-hand how government happens in their communities. Oakland County government staff invited high school youth from Oakland County school districts to spend a day learning about the functions of county government.

Spending time in government buildings can break down simple barriers that youth may need to overcome for future civic participation. The Oakland County event convened in the commissioner auditorium and invited the youth to sit in the seats that the county commissioners would occupy during meetings. Breakout sessions took place in real county government committee rooms equipped with microphones and technology. Simply inviting youth into the spaces that government takes place makes future trips to the same facilities for participation in local government less intimidating.

In addition to Oakland County government personnel, Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development educators assisted with the program in 2017. Extension educator Darren Bagley facilitated a session where youth considered how their own perspectives inform their political viewpoints and that information that doesn’t align with their existing ideologies may be easier to dismiss than information that matches their current viewpoints.

The activity demonstrated that political parties aside, people address issues from a wide range of viewpoints based on their existing ideologies. Through careful listening, we may be able to learn from each other to find solutions that are agreeable to a broad audience.

Next, students were charged with sharing their perspectives through a debate of sample proposals county government may consider. The proposals included banning pit bulls, assessing a tax on sugared beverages and requiring body cams on police officers. After learning facts about the issue at hand, youth took turns at the podium speaking in favor or against the mock proposals.

MSU Extension facilitators Bagley, Janelle Stewart and Jackelyn Martin helped the students draw connections from the mock debate to the real decision-making process in local government and explained how youth can have a voice in the process.

County commissioners reminded youth participants during their breakout sessions that each government committee meeting that takes place has a time for public comment, and whether or not the youth are old enough to vote, as residents of their community, youth are entitled to a voice at that table. Changing roles from citizens to elected officials, next youth had the opportunity to vote on the mock proposals just as a county commissioner would.

Throughout the day, youth heard from speakers representing many county government departments including the Health Department, Sherriff’s Office, County Clerk, County Treasurer, Prosecuting Attorney and Forensic Lab. County commissioners and county deputy executive Phil Bertolini interacted with the youth throughout the day.

For help facilitating a program like this in your community, contact the MSU Extension 4-H Leadership and Civic Engagement team at 4-hleadership@anr.msu.edu. To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways MSU Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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