by Julia Steiny
Last November, the Lord Mayor and Mayoress of Leeds, England invited 10 sixth-graders, 10 and 11-year-olds, to tea at their home. Annually, for the last 10 years, the Leeds City Council has invited all the city's "year 6" students to compete to be elected, after a fashion, to become the Leeds Child Mayor. At that tea the adult Mayor, who is himself a City Councilman elected by his Council peers, was honoring the finalists for the position and announcing the winner of this year's election: Charlotte Williams, pictured above.
In the past, the Child Mayor election was a learning exercise in civic engagemen leading to a largely ceremonial position. But in 2011, as part of its work to become a Child-Friendly City (CFC), Leeds surveyed their youth and children asking what it was they wanted from their city government. CFCs highly value children and youth "voice." The survey results were boiled down to "12 Wishes" that include such desires as (#9) having more good jobs and training opportunities for youth and (#8) schools that address obstacles preventing all kids from "engaging in and enjoying learning." In 2012 the Wishes changed the eligibility for Mayor. Sixth-graders now write a manifesto up to 400 words on how he or she, as Mayor, would accomplish some aspect of one Wish.
Charlotte addressed Wish #1: "Children and young people can make safe journeys and easily travel around the city." Her winning essay, Life cycle of Leeds, promises to promote cycling by developing more bike paths and a city bike-share program.
But here's the beautiful part: relevant members of the City Council and their staff are assigned to work with the Child Mayor to realize the goals. They heard the kids and are committing City resources to improving their world.
Children's voice is real.
Giving children a say in what affects them is a value held dear by both Child-Friendly Cities and Restorative Practices, the back-stage techniques that help get the loftier CFC goals accomplished. This column series has looked at both initiatives quite closely, but hasn't yet highlighted that youth voice is where the two initiatives intersect. Children's voice is the vortex of Leeds' work.
Certainly the Children's Wishes are a very public effort to hear kids. But Family Group Conferencing (FGC), a Restorative technique used in child-welfare cases, also invites the perceptions and opinions of the kids in the families involved. FGC's success lies specifically in having the members of the family speak for themselves. Normally professionals decide where to place children whose parents can no longer engage in proper parenting (drugs, mentally illness, abuse). In FGC the extended family expresses their solutions, as do the highly-trained professionals. But the statistical odds of children thriving in a new placement go up significantly if the kids are also consulted. What do they want? What do they think would work best? Often they know tons about the situation that no professional could.
Under any circumstance where the children themselves will be affected, they should have the right to be heard, taken seriously, and when necessary, held accountable for their actions or statements. When age-appropriate, children and youth should be at the table in their own Individual Education Plan meetings (for special education). If the professionals state their goals — improved behavior, certain academic goals — how does the kid think such goals might be met? Kids won't always have great ideas, but sometimes their solutions will be brilliant.
Children are not final decision-makers. Hear them anyway. Schools, parks-and-recreation departments, and transportation offices would be more successful in their own efforts if they ask the opinions of their young clients and when possible, work jointly on problems and solutions with them.
Kids are a fund of useful information which we ignore to our peril.
It will take time for Leeds' kids to trust that they're actually being heard. Their Wish #11 is: "Children and young people express their views, feel heard and are actively involved in decisions that affect their lives — this is what we mean by âparticipation'."
But Leeds is working on including children's opinions in every aspect of the city's inner workings that has to do with them — schools, transportation, workforce development. Young voices can be creative and highly useful on boards and committees, especially as they get used to adults expecting to hear their thoughts. What Charlotte Williams wants for her city and herself is a fine goal. Hopefully she and the City Council will noticeably improve bike transportation. Children and adults alike will benefit.
Yes, for a year Charlotte also gets to be part of the pomp the British do so well. But more importantly, the City's children will see their and her ideas being taken seriously by municipal bureaucrats. It should be so everywhere. Kudos to the City of Leeds.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.