A couple of years ago, Gonzales City Manager Rene Mendez remembers reading the news about spiking youth violence and gang activity in South County. He wanted to do something to get out ahead of the problem, but the obvious things – after-school programming, recreation programs – didn’t feel like enough.
A forum for youth with the city, police department and the Gonzales Unified School District generated a novel idea: Let young people tell city officials how to serve young people.
“Youth wanted to be more engaged in our community and our government,” Mendez says.
The forum kickstarted a joint process between the city and school district of appointing youth commissioners, two top-performing students. They attend all school board and City Council meetings, sit where staff members do, and present on relevant issues.
And Youth Commissioners Janelle Gil and Anthony Avila think those bureaucratic meetings are fun, even when they barely fit in their schedules between band practice and studying. “We actually get an opinion about everything they say,” Gil says.
“They do talk a lot about things I don’t know much about, and some things that would bore a lot of other kids,” Avila says. “It’s actually really interesting; I don’t know if it’s the part of me that wants to grow up.”
Gil and Avila now oversee 12 other students, 6th through 12th graders, who have been appointed to serve on a Youth Council that first met Aug. 11.
The group started prioritizing the issues: The longer-than-expected closure of the Gonzales municipal pool, due to repairs, and bullying in middle school topped the list.
The city and school district have agreed to jointly fund a full-time youth adviser position by dedicating $50,000 each; youth council members are interviewing candidates.
The city is also searching for a facility that can serve as a dedicated student leadership office.