City governments are not generally known for representing the voice of city youth, but a recent proposal approved by the Durham City Council may help change that. At its Sept. 16 meeting, the council voted 7-0 to approve the creation of a Durham Youth Commission.
The role of the commission, which will be comprised of 30 minors, will be to advise and assist local elected officials on problems facing youth today. The board will also help young people apply for grants from the city.
"I strongly support a youth commission," said City Council member Howard Clement. "Young people are the leadership of tomorrow, and we need to integrate them. They will get to learn how to operate a city government, and they need to know why things are the way they are."
The Durham Youth Commission was proposed by Teenagers Politically Active, a local nonprofit organization devoted to social change to benefit Durham youth. TPA was created in January 2001 by 18-year-old Durham resident DeWarren Langley, currently a senior at Jordan High School.
Langley first got the idea for TPA on a spring 2000 group trip to Washington, D.C., to speak to North Carolina representatives. The trip was sponsored by the Duke-Durham Partners for Youth program.
Later in the year, Langley attended a City Council meeting where city leaders proposed a juvenile curfew. The proposal received staunch support from the audience, and despite being the only minor at the meeting, Langley stood up and voiced his opposition.
"Instead of a curfew, I thought the city could offer constructive things for teenagers, like a place for students to hang out during the week and more job opportunities. There are not a lot of jobs for young people in Durham, and money is very important to teenagers," Langley said.
With Langley's help, the curfew law was repealed on the basis of unconstitutionality the next month. Inspired by those events, Langley decided it was finally time to create TPA.
Langley now hopes the commission could help the city confront some of the biggest issues facing youth today. He cited examples such as the prevalence of gangs and drugs and the lack of employment opportunities.
The goal of the commission is not only to give Durham teenagers the opportunity to work with city officials, but also to offer those officials the perspective of some of the younger members of the community.
"I'm 51 years old," said Mayor Pro Tem Lewis Cheek. "I don't know very much about what's going on with teenagers today. Hopefully the commission will be a good source of information for me [and the other members of the council]."
Approval by the City Council is only the first step, however. The DYC will go before the Durham County Board of Commissioners for a vote sometime in October.
The Durham Board of Education, the third governing body that the commission would assist, has yet to set a date for discussing the proposal. Langley said the school board, with its direct impact on teenagers' education, has given "the least amount of support, although it is perhaps the most vital [of the three bodies]."
Langley said TPA had originally planned to apply for a grant from the Civic Education Consortium, but because the City Council did not approve the commission until Sept. 16, the group did not have time to meet the Sept. 20 grant deadline.
A similar commission in Hampton, Va., receives city funding, including an annual $30,000 for a grant program, Hampton Youth Coordinator Alyica Washington said. Because of budget shortfalls in North Carolina, however, Langley said immediate funding from the City Council for the youth commission is unlikely, but he hopes it can win approval at budget hearings next summer.at budget hearings next summer.