Giving youth a voice as school resumes

It’s a big time of year for young people in Michigan. Some are heading off to college or trade school, some are starting their first jobs, some are getting first-day jitters in school … and all of them are learning.

Youth — in this case, people from age 12 to 24 — make up more than 12% of the population in the counties The Alpena News reaches. Including the thousands in your local communities, there are 1,723,279 young people in Michigan right now who are full of potential and promise, and we owe it to them to provide opportunities to learn, grow, and contribute to their communities.

The Michigan League for Public Policy, both through its Kids Count project and its Owner’s Manual for Michigan, has made youth a priority.

We’re dedicated to addressing health issues that are unique to youth, including expanded access to mental health care, a more comprehensive and inclusive sexual education curriculum, and support for programs like the Michigan Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting Program.

In addition to health issues, we’re advocating to fully fund the state’s At-Risk School Aid program, which would go a long way for youth in school districts that enroll a high number of students who are economically disadvantaged. Kids in such schools have so much potential, but struggle based on barriers created by a historically biased system. With the right amount of funding, schools can chip away at those barriers and give kids the boost they need to get ahead.

But friends, there is so much more work to be done.

Later this month, we’re releasing a troubling new report on the number of homeless youth in Michigan.

Among the findings? Nationally, one in 30 unaccompanied youth ages 12 to 17 will experience homelessness in a given year. That number jumps to one in 10 for those ages 18 to 24. Youth who are in or aging out of foster care, involved in the juvenile justice system, identify as LGBTQ, or are black or part of the Latinx community, are up to 120 times more likely to experience one or more instances of homelessness between the ages of 12 and 24.

As with any of the issues we work on here at the League, there’s not a quick fix for youth homelessness. It’s a problem that requires solutions to come from a broad spectrum, including affordable housing, education, health care, the justice system, the foster care system, and other social services agencies. And, most importantly, the solutions must be youth-driven.

If we don’t include youth in the problem-solving process in Michigan, we’re missing out on some really great insights.

Youth in Michigan are innovative, thoughtful, and driven. In our Kids Count youth art contest last spring, we saw evidence of their creative energy. In our Raise the Age campaign for youth justice, we saw their determination to make change. In our focus groups around the state, we’ve heard about what they think our state needs to move forward. And our Kids Count partners recently formed a subcommittee to work toward integrating youth voices into their projects, as well.

As we work to build a stronger Michigan, we’re making it a point to hear and include youth in our decision-making.

That’s why we’re calling for more young voices to weigh in on the League’s efforts and share their thoughts with our staff and board members. Our new Youth League, coming this fall, will help connect us with youth across the state and hear their concerns and, more importantly, their visions.

Stay tuned to our social media (follow @MichLeague on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook) in the coming weeks to learn more.

So as our state’s youth head off to school and work, let’s remember not only to help them on the road ahead, but to let them get behind the wheel, too.

Gilda Z. Jacobs is president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.