As the City of Hampton, VA, looked towards the 21st century, city leaders wanted to chart a course of action that would, in times of diminishing resources and stress on youth and families, develop a competitive workforce to spur economic development. Their goal was to foster a citizenry that would contribute to the community rather than drain its resources. They wanted young people who were thriving and responding to business and industry demands, skilled in leadership, teamwork, and citizenship. They envisioned a city where youth would want to live and work after college.
With the hopes of achieving these goals, Youth Civic Engagement (YCE) was established in 1990. Hampton made youth invaluable resources to their neighborhoods, schools, and local government. The City realized that when adults view young people as mere recipients of services, youth are excluded from the community's social contract; this ensures that the youth remain problems to be fixed instead of assets that enhance the community.
YCE is based on a pyramid model that identifies three major pathways through which young people participate actively in local government and the community. At the base, there are countless opportunities for involvement within Projects and Service in city departments, schools, and neighborhoods that entice youth to their first taste of civic action. Building on increased skills and interest, youth contribute through Input and Advisory functions including membership on all major city commissions and within advisory teams for the superintendent and all secondary school principals. Students helped develop policies regarding exam exemption for students who meet certain criteria, cell phone usage in school, and GPA minimums for athletic participation. In addition, youth can be found working with Hampton's Neighborhood Office, the Office of Parks and Recreation, as well as the transportation department. They also serve as their own Commission, disseminating $40,000 worth of grant money each year.
YCE has had a profound effect on the youth and the City itself. In recent focus groups, college students who were past YCE participants identified three major attributes/skills they possess that they have not observed in the majority of their college peers: the ability to engage in civic discourse, a sense of place/passion for their own community, and leadership. The young adult voter participation rates in the 2004 presidential election were significantly higher in Hampton than nationally. Incorporating youth in decision making has also resulted in cost savings, improved services, and a more inclusive process for the City of Hampton. Most importantly, YCE has significantly altered the culture of civic life in Hampton, as adults have grown to expect, rely on, and--most importantly--enjoy active youth participation on civic committees.