Problem: How do you engage young people to help them learn how county government works?
Solution: Team up with a local leadership program to host high school students at meetings with county leaders.
Wondering how to get the young people in your community excited about county government? In Columbia County, Wis., county supervisors meet often with teenagers who are part of the Future Leaders Active in Government (FLAG) program, led by the University of Wisconsin-Extension Columbia County.
The program got its start 10 years ago, when former county Supervisor Doug Richmond returned from a Wisconsin Counties Association meeting, where he had heard about a student leadership program.
He wanted to start a similar one in Columbia County and when he returned, met with Kathleen Haas, community development educator and associate professor at Columbia County UW-Extension, and Karen Nelson, 4-H youth educator and department head.
“We looked at a lot of different models, and designed and planned the program with Doug,” Haas said.
One of the traditions of the program is to schedule time for students to meet one on one with county supervisors at a breakfast where students ask questions about how county government works and the role that supervisors play. The students also meet monthly throughout the year.
“As the students progress through the year, they gain a better understanding of how it works,” Columbia County Supervisor Andy Ross said. In addition to meeting with supervisors at breakfast meetings, the students also prepare a resolution at the county supervisors’ meeting in April.
The program usually includes anywhere from about 20 to 45 students — high school juniors and seniors — who participate in daylong activities related to government each month.
“I’ve run into some of the young people out of school, out of college and who have come back in the area to work,” he said. “I still know them, they still know me, we’ll stop and say hi. Invariably they’ll say the experience they had was outstanding.”
“The bottom line to this whole thing is that the young person, whether they ever take and do anything — say as an elected official or anything like that — or they just go out and be a good citizen and participate in voting, and talk with their friends and add a little perspective to what they’ve learned, it’s a ripples-on-the-water thing. I just can’t support it enough. There are very few things that I’ve ever really, in almost 30 years of local and elected positions, that I’ve said, ‘This is so good, you’ve got to keep going somehow,’” he added.
Extra expenses for the program include transportation that isn’t provided by schools as well as catering for meetings, about $2,500 annually, which is funded by the county.
If you are interested in creating a similar program, Haas said you’ll need buy-in from the county board, your extension office, schools, students and other county departments that are involved in a future program.
Preparing to meet your county commissioner
Students come prepared to the county supervisor breakfast meetings, armed with instructions on conversations topics. It’s also an opportunity to sharpen their social skills. Here’s a sample:
- Introduce yourself and shake hands; then share:
- Your school
- Why you joined Future Leaders Active in Government
- One or two current events you’re interested in
Students are encouraged to take notes because they’ll be sharing their information later with the group. Here’s a sample of the questions they ask the county officials:
- Name, district, which municipality do you represent?
- How long have you been an elected official and why did you run for office?
- Have you held any other public offices and if so, what you most proud of accomplishing in that position?
- What county committees are you on and what is your role?
- How do you see your role and responsibilities of being a county board supervisor relating to: USA’s democratic principles and U.S. Constitution; the constituents you represent; protecting the public good of Columbia County and Wisconsin and how do you see yourself as a public servant?
For more information about FLAG, contact Haas at: firstname.lastname@example.org