ASHLAND — “Older ideas aren’t necessarily the best ideas.”
Those seven words were spoken by a 17-year-old who attended an Ashland Source “Talk the Vote” event back in October of 2021.
The young woman was unable to vote in the following November election. Nevertheless, she exposed a desire to be more engaged with local government.
Are there potential collaborations between the school districts and councils? What about the creation of a youth liaison, or youth council? How can local governments get more young people engaged in what they do?
Before we get into answering those questions, let’s back up a bit and ask another question.
Is getting youth engaged civically a good idea?
Experts in the field give an emphatic yes.
Lisa Jones, of YouthAction.net, said it’s not only good for society to hear the fresh voices of a new generation, “but it’s good for young people, too.”
A 2018 study published in the journal Child Development found that activism in the form of protesting or demonstrating is “good for young people” regardless of other factors that influence future success.
Others have said youth’s civic engagement “might be a formative experience with a role in shaping educational attainment and income.”
Some young people in Ashland County are already involved in local government — but not many. How can the rest of the county learn from these existing programs?
Take the Village of Jeromesville for example.
In 2018, Mayor Randy Spade worked to establish the state’s first-ever village junior council. The nine-member council is appointed by village elected officials and meets regularly to consider resolutions anywhere from the purchase of new playground equipment to dress code inequalities at school.
“It functions just like a council,” Spade said. The council is made up of six appointed members, a junior mayor, a junior village administrator and a junior fiscal officer. The junior council meets regularly.
It’s something Spade hopes other villages and towns around the county duplicate. He actually developed a training plan so that duplication can happen.
“I did all that right before COVID,” he said. “It’s like a junior council in a box. I would love to see that adopted here in the county. And then, maybe once a year we have them all meet together at Ashland University, sharing what they learned, what their plans are, hopes and ideas in their towns.”
As a Jeromesville native, Spade is passionate about the idea.
“I grew up here and then went to school in Kentucky. I came home so I want kids to know they don’t have to go somewhere else to have a great life,” he said.
Spade said the idea to set up a junior council has always been about preparing the generation poised to take over when he and his peers are done. He said he’s learned that young people have a lot to say about what life is like in town.
“So we can only benefit from listening to them,” he said.
Another example can be found in the Ashland County Community Foundation’s IMPACT Youth Council, which was established in 2015. The council is made up of students from area schools that meets regularly during the school year to “learn about the needs of youth in Ashland County and then review grant applications from organizations that provide services to meet those needs.”
The students, 22 in all during the 2021-22 school year, then decide how grant dollars should be awarded from the foundation’s Youth Empowerment Fund. The council awarded $16,763 in grants to 12 organizations back in April.
The council included 12 students from Ashland High School, four from Mapleton High School, three from the Ashland County-West Holmes Career Center, two from Genesis Christian Academy and one from Hillsdale High School.
Ashland Mayor Matt Miller acknowledged there is nothing formal in terms of involvement between the City of Ashland and area youth, but praised ACCF’s program as “the most effective and impactful way to get (youth) involved.”
“I would like to think our local officials are in touch with the community, including our young people,” he said. “The IMPACT Youth Program teaches great lessons. Those in the council are not children, they’re young adults. It’s a serious program. They take it serious and they’re impacting the community at every front.”
Douglas Shonk’s government class at Hillsdale High School dips its toes into how county government works.
On May 19, his class of 27 juniors took a field trip to the Ashland County administrative building. They visited the county board of elections office first thing in the morning, then went upstairs to sit in during a commissioners meeting. After that they crossed the street to visit Ashland County Common Pleas Judge Ron Forsthoefel to talk to him about his duties.
The class then visited the county’s title office and finished up the day by visiting the sheriff’s office, where deputies gave them a tour and a K-9 demonstration.
“The typical reactions from the students when they hear we’re doing this is, ‘Why are we doing this? Why look at local government?’ And for me, this is what’s going to affect their lives the most. And it’s what they’ll see the rest of their lives — where they see most of their money go,” he said.
Shonk, who’s been teaching high school government classes for 22 years, said he usually bribes them with lunch to get them to come on the field trip. But at the end of the day, the students find they actually enjoy themselves.
“They say, ‘We really enjoyed that,’ or, ‘That was really interesting,’” Shonk said.
Shonk’s is the only remaining class to take part in Ashland County Government Day, which used to be the entire month of May. It’s just one day now because only one class participates.
He wishes it was different.
“For me, anytime you can get kids hands-on experience, it’s beneficial for them. No matter what it is,” he said. “I would like to see more done to get kids more civically engaged.”
That’s why he has hooked up with the Ohio Center for Law-Related Education, a Columbus-based organization aimed at setting up students and teachers with programs and resources designed to foster learning around government, law and active citizenship.
Shonk said he’d like to set up a mock congressional hearing for his students next spring as yet another hands-on experience.
Shonk’s government class, ACCF’s IMPACT Youth Council and Jeromesville’s junior council are the only formal efforts in the county to get youth more engaged civically.
Is there an appetite from local leaders to do more?
Miller pointed to city-sanctioned recreational events as a way the city has worked recently to engage youth.
On Father’s Day weekend, the city hosted an outdoor movie night at Foundations Plaza in Downtown Ashland. Miller said the event drew around 250 people, including children and young people, to the event.
The city’s Splash Party at Brookside Pool happened July 29 and there are more events planned for this month.
Miller and other elected officials also occasionally make presentations at schools in an effort to get face time with young people, he said.
“My goal has always been helping them see that they matter too,” Miller said of young people. “It helps them from an early age to be proud of their city. I hope to make (Ashland) a city where everyone feels welcome — all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities.”
Ashland County Board of Commissioners Clerk Nikki Hiller said she likes County Government Day because she knows how impactful it is to know how local government works.
“To see and meet the individual people they might be dealing with someday — the county commissioners, it’s good to put a face on them. So it’s not a bad idea to have more youth engaged.
“It would be nice to get other county schools and the city school to participate too, like they used to,” Hiller said.
Commissioner president Jim Justice agrees.
“I used to go down and talk to middle school kids about our jobs and what it’s like. Now, I haven’t been invited back, so it must not have been that great,” he said, laughing.
But Justice said he believes engaging youth in an effort to get them more involved with local government is generally a good thing.
“I wouldn’t mind doing more. There’s a lot about government that people have no idea about,” he said.