Adopt a councillor: It’s actually happening!

By Andrew Coulson

 

Back in May 2015 I wrote a blog called Future Local Government: Adopt a Councillor based on a concept I’d read about from New Zealand. The concept wasn’t old or new but was amazingly simple and innovative yet seemingly barely used or spoken about. I’d read about it being trialled by one council, Hamilton City Council, in 2011 when Councillor Angela O’Leary initiated the idea with Hamilton’s Whitiora School. However I struggled to find out anything about both the trial and the process beyond a few local news reports when it had started. But it sounded like a great scheme to engage members of the community in the role of local government (at the time I was working as a community engagement officer in local government) and so I blogged about my own version to the world via Commsgodigital

The blog was pretty well received and after a few weeks I got notice from Gary Howe, a Commissioner (councillor) with Traverse City, Michigan, that he had read the blog and liked it so much he was preparing to run it past his council as a possible idea for engaging young people. I’m not going to lie I felt pretty proud that a little blog I had written had actually made an impact. Gary promised that he would keep me informed as the process went on and in the first year sent me a few DMs acknowledging that the process idea had been passed and was being written in to a local schools curriculum as a trial. 

Over a year and a half later, in conversation with another community engagement practitioner in South Australia, the subject came up again and so I wrote to Gary for an update. To my surprise Gary wrote back with a very positive report that Traverse City’s version of ‘adopt a commissioner’ was going very well that they were about to start a second year. In the first year 10 students adopted 2 commissioners and in the coming session 24 students and 4 commissioners will to be involved. Gary shared with me a number of media reports as well as the contact details of the teacher, called Tak Ready, who had been tasked with taking the idea forward from council concept to school program. 

Wanting to learn more about it’s success and how it was achieved I contacted Tak and asked if he was happy to talk about his experience so others could learn. So armed with questions sourced via the Engage2Act Facebook group, I set up an interview to chat about how he had made this great concept for engaging young people on in understanding local government on paper actually work for Traverse City.

Heres what I found out:

A: Hi Tak lets start with the basics, give us a quick background check?

T: Well I’m Tak Ready and I currently teach Advanced Placement United States Government & Politics, and I teach Civics (which is basic American Government). I have taught high school social studies classes for 24 years.

A: Thanks Tak, 24 years wow. So I’m interested how did you first hear about 'adopt a councillor'?

T: I first heard about the "adopt a commissioner" (in our town councillors are called commissioners), from one of our local commissioners, Gary Howe. Gary had run this past other Commissioners and they wanted to see a possible program.

A: What were your initial thoughts about the idea and then been asked to develop a concept for Traverse City?

T: I was incredibly excited about the idea. For years, government teachers in our school district have required that kids attend governmental meetings to watch their government in action. This adopt a commissioner program was a chance for the kids to be more active in their learning, and not just observe, but to act.

A: So I’ve read in the first year it was set up as a trail with one class. For you what was the most surprising outcome or insight to emerge from that first trail?

T: One of the most exciting parts for me was to watch my students at first come back from their meetings with the commissioners talking to themselves and me about city topics. What was even more exciting was to eventually watch them speak in front of the city commission, where they gave the commission their opinions on a range of topics. They weren’t just watching but being engaged. 

A: To what extent did the trial help Commissioners to "do their job" better?

T: I think this program has helped commissioners get feedback and ideas from a group of people who they don't ordinarily hear from. Statistically, kids tend not to be particularly active in politics in the U.S. This helped demystify government for the kids who participated, and will hopefully lead them to be politically active for the rest of their lives.  Hopefully it also helps commissioners understand the views of kids.

A: Yes I agree, starting them young is so beneficial. So how did you go from trial in 2015-16 to a full program now?

T: Well, there are two high schools in Traverse City.... Traverse City West Senior High School, and Traverse City Central High School. The first year, it was only my high school that was part of the program. This year, we got both high schools involved, and more commissioners agreed to be adopted.

A: And as the project grows is it funded, if yes, by whom and for how long?

T: The project is not funded at all at the moment, and has not cost anything up to this point, as been built in to normal curriculum lessons.

A:. How many schools, commissioners etc could this be expanded to? Is the process likely to expand further?

T: Traverse City Commissioner Gary Howe, City Clerk Benjamin Marentette, and I have talked about expanding this to other local commissions, but at the moment, we are keeping it to the two high schools, and the Traverse City Commission.

A: And the kids involved, are there different age group involved and has the uptake/interest been different?

T: So far we have only done this with juniors and seniors in high school, who would range in age from 16-18.

A. To what extent did the trial stimulate students to be more active in local issues/politics?

T: Kids come back from their meetings very excited. I remember the first group that had a meeting with a commissioner, came back talking before class about "special land use permits." I have never heard kids talking to each other before class about local zoning laws. It was really cool to see the kids all excited about local government, and how they might impact it.

A: Sounds like that kind of warm feeling you get when you know your making an impact! But was there any evidence of students discussing their experience out of school, say with family/friends, was there a ripple effect?

T: As mentioned earlier, yes, they were definitely talking with each other about this on their own. Plus we built in a requirement to have kids report back to the whole class, and lead the class in a discussion on whatever topic they focused on with their commissioner. The class discussions that I originally budgeted about 20 minutes for had to be extended to 1 hour, because the discussions were so rich. This definitely had a ripple effect as the kids who adopted a commissioner reported to the whole class, even the kids who were not part of the program.

A: Sounds like it was really taking a hold of those involved which I love to hear. With regards to the schools and commission has geographic/local proximity to each other been essential to success?

T: I think being able to meet in person with the commissioner definitely helps, but I suppose it could be done electronically via Skype or Facetime. We have not tried that, and I don't know if that would be as effective.

A: So what about the future Tak, any thoughts on whether this could be used and extended to something like ‘adopt an MP’?

T: I think it is possible it could be extended to a Member of Congress, if we could get Members of Congress to be willing to participate. We haven't tried that, and in the U.S. there are over 600,000 people per member of Congress, but it would be great if they were willing to participate. We have not looked into this at all though.

A: Thanks Tak, and finally, do you feel that the scheme has led to councillors/commissioners helping young people contribute to consultations, local government etc - help them to ensure young peoples voices are heard?

T: Absolutely! I think this program benefits commissioners by exposing them to voices they don't otherwise hear from that often, and it also helps the kids see how their local government operates, and helps them feel a sense of political efficacy.... that they now have the knowledge, and confidence to try to influence their local government, and make a positive difference in their community.

Thanks to Tak Ready for the chat. In emails Tak has also pointed out that the goal of the project has been to increase youth involvement and investment in solving local problems whilst also developing skills such as leadership needed to understand and work with local government and community to develop positive change collaboratively. Their understanding of ‘special land use permits’ is hopefully just the start of things to come. 

It seems that in future years the youth of Traverse City will be more educated in how decisions are made in local government and how this effects their lives and those around them thanks to the ‘adopt a commissioner’ scheme. The understanding they are getting through Tak’s project will impact them now, opening up a deeper understanding of the importance of local government in the community, and in the future and hopefully for generations to come. 

Thanks to Tak, Gary and of course Traverse City, Michigan for reading and taking on my blog idea - making it a reality. Good luck with the next year of ‘adopt a commissioner’.

Inspired? Let us know. @andrewecoulson