Missouri Gives Young People a Seat at Government's Table
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor

In many states, it is legislators who debate the best strategies for helping younger citizens and have influence in public policy. However, these discussions often leave out the people directly affected.

The state of Missouri is looking to break this trend by inviting young people to be directly involved alongside elected officials in brainstorming how to improve the services their home state provides for their own peer group and for other citizens as well. 

"In the United States [something like this] is revolutionary," says Ben Smilowitz, Coordinator of the Missouri Youth Cabinet. "By doing [an internet] search, you will find many 'Mayor's Councils,' [in other states] but nothing this holistic. Many advisory boards in other areas deal with youth issues, but don't have any youth on them. [The idea] has already spread. A lot have looked at [our Cabinet] and caught on."

The Youth Cabinet was the creation of Governor Bob Holden who decided to enlist the help of Missourians between the ages of 17 and 22 to work alongside his own Cabinet of elected officials. Working together, the youth can make their voices heard and share ideas and opinions on a number of issues facing the state.

Smilowitz, 21, has been a vocal advocate himself since middle school. In 1996, he co-founded the International Student Activism Alliance (ISAA), a "union for students," he says, with over 180 national chapters. In his sophomore year of college, he wrote legislation to create seats for two students on the Connecticut State Board of Education, which the state would pass a year later.

Currently a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, Smilowitz may be unsure of life after graduation, but he knows that he will remain involved in public policy and social justice issues, helping others to play a role in the policies and environment around them.

"Empowerment and helping people become empowered is huge for me," he says. "If more people spoke up, more problems would be solved.

Time2Act.org recently spoke with Smilowitz to learn more about the Youth Cabinet and how Missouri's youth will take an active role in the policies affecting the entire state.

What are the goals of the Youth Cabinet? How can it benefit Missouri?

Smilowitz: I think there are two goals of the Youth Cabinet. One is that the governor has recognized that when young people are involved in their community and engaged in helping shape programs and state policy, they'll feel more respected as citizens. [Youth involved will get a] whole sense of engagement that can lead to better outcomes.

[The second goal involves the fact] that state policy is being shaped by a lot of adults who aren't very well connected to young people and [legislators are] making policies and creating programs aimed at young people, but not reaching their audience and if they are, they are not effective at it. By training young people and by involving them in advisory roles and decision-making policy, they will get better programs.

If you look at it financially and you spend $1 million on a program aimed at young people and it reaches two out of 10 [youth], you are wasting money. So if the state can learn better how to aim programs at young people, [it] will be more efficient and effective, especially with a tight budget.

[Having more] young people engaged leads to better outcomes in terms of scores in school and in the likelihood of [young people] staying in the state and making it into a better place. If they stay in Missouri, we can keep the skills and job force here.

A lot of people in the Youth Cabinet considered leaving the state to go to college and since have reconsidered and applied to Missouri schools. We want them to stay involved and if we can do that with our leaders now, [we will have] better leaders for the state's future.

What do young people bring to the table in terms of shaping their community and its policies?

Smilowitz: The old school of thought is that [adults] are threatened by the capacity of young people at the table. Young people in the Youth Cabinet have already done a lot and changed the mindset of some state departments, boards and commissions.

Members are advising the governor's office on issues not just related to youth. They are working with the Department of Transportation and as liaisons to [offices including] public safety, health, revenue and conservation also. 

The relationship between young people and the governor's Cabinet members [is good] and they are in regular contact. They are involved in senior policy meetings. They are speaking at conferences across the state; speaking to adults and helping other organizations get young people on their own boards. 

They are serving as [kind of] peer mentors and motivators to other young people shut out of policy. Young people in our country and in Missouri may not be so active to share because they've been shut out for so long. After a while of being shut out, they become complacent and stop making the effort to speak up.

This is the state's and the governor's effort to reach out and say "Look, we know you've been shut out, but not anymore. If you get involved now, you can help get more young people involved in programs."

How were Youth Cabinet members selected? 

Smilowitz: We got 350 applications from across the state, from the time we made the announcement on June 6th to the [close date of] July 1st. We spent a lot of time across the state, holding regional open houses and meetings to get the word out.

The governor's youth policy team reviewed the applications, each member taking 20 or 30 to look at. I also read every application and the governor also read selected applications.

We had to really pick a group representative of Missouri's diversity and we are still working to keep everyone engaged. [We chose 45 members of the Youth Cabinet] and there are many, many, many boards and commissions still with no young people, so we will look at that and use young people in as many policy-driven roles as possible.

The governor made the adult Cabinet members aware to take this seriously and work and respect the members of the Youth Cabinet. Through that, many in the Youth Cabinet were given lists of advisory boards to fill with young people [that applied to the Youth Cabinet].

Everyone who applied [for the Youth Cabinet] is basically part of the Governor's Youth Network. Not everyone will be put on a board, but as many as we can. Even if they are not, most will be advising members of the Youth Cabinet. We are looking to hook in as many young people as possible.

What message would you give to youth interested in getting involved with policies and programs being shaped in their own community?

Smilowitz: I'd say that for a lot of people, government, elected officials and policy can be intimidating. As long as young people think that, we won't get anywhere. The only way to impact policy changes is to get over that and realize that elected officials are there to represent us and that young people can play a significant role in the process.

The Youth Cabinet is a [vehicle] to that change. By leveling with young people, [government officials] realize they have a lot to share and their perspective is important.


For more information on the Missouri Youth Cabinet and Youth Network, go to:
http://www.gov.state.mo.us/youth.htm or contact Ben Smilowitz at: bssmilow@artsci.wustl.edu.  Ben is also a speaker on the program and other youth advocacy issues and loves to share his message nationwide.

159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339