When Young People Had a Vote in Decisions about Their Own Programs

April 12, 2017 by

Although this reflection by AYPF’s Board Chair, Tony Sarmiento (first posted at AYPF on March 13, 2017), isn’t related to competency-based education, I think it is an extraordinary piece that allows us to learn from our elders to better respect our children and youth. As we open up what is possible in competency-based education with transparent continuums of learning, we also open up new doors to how we construct education. In re-posting this article, I’m not suggesting that we should run directly to created markets. I’m saying that we should look backwards and forwards to organize the very best of what we know works best for young people to engage, motivate, and support students. Listening to them and creating formal ways to guide them is always a strong first step.

Happy reading! – Chris

Tony Sarmiento, AYPF Board Chair

As I near retirement after working with older adults for nearly two decades, I was recently honored in a surprise reunion with former co-workers from almost fifty years ago, when we worked together at a neighborhood youth center in upper Northwest Washington, DC. While we shared hazy memories of dances, basketball games, and other typical summer youth center activities, all of us recalled fond and detailed memories of the youth center director, Pat McDonough, who in his late-20s hired, supervised, and inspired us. None of us had been in regular contact with Pat before his death a few years ago, but all of us acknowledged his lasting impact on our careers and lives.

The reunion reminded me of my employment during the War on Poverty as a youth worker in several of my home city’s neighborhoods. At that time, an official goal of the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was to insure youth involvement in planning, operating, and evaluating youth programs. This was consistent with the larger goal of “maximum feasible participation” by the community in all OEO programs. As stated in an official OEO Instruction, “Youth Development Program Policies,” (February 1970):

Every Community Action Agency and Delegate Agency must insure active youth involvement in all phases of its Youth Development Program. Applications which do not reflect this commitment will not be funded. (as underlined in the original)]In the District of Columbia, this mandate for youth involvement was achieved by partitioning the city into twenty Neighborhood Planning Councils (NPCs), which were administered by then-Mayor Walter Washington’s Office of Youth Opportunity Services (OYOS). Each NPC was governed by ten adults and ten youth (between 14-21 years old) elected in community elections. Every year, each of the twenty councils was responsible for developing, debating, and voting on their community’s year-round youth programs and program budgets, based on funding made available by OYOS. OYOS also provided technical assistance to the councils and monitored their compliance with OEO regulations.

The annual funding allocation for each NPC was determined by the number of economically disadvantaged youth living within the council’s jurisdiction. As part of a citywide youth development program, every council (including the relatively well-off upper Northwest neighborhoods) received a minimum allocation. In 1971, annual NPC budgets ranged from $120,000 to more than $500,000 (in today’s dollars). Throughout the city, youth members of the Neighborhood Planning Councils were not just advisors to adult decision makers. Youth had a voice and vote equal to the adult members.

Giving youth a voice and vote equal to adults in decisions about significant resources and funding led to many innovative community-based youth programs throughout the city. Youth-run markets, peer counseling programs, concerts for young performers, neighborhood oral history projects, safe temporary shelters for runaways, and youth “courtesy patrols” escorting vulnerable older residents in the neighborhood were just a few examples of the programs that were developed, staffed, and supported by the Neighborhood Planning Councils.

In my opinion, we have lost much since the dismantling of OEO and structures such as Neighborhood Planning Councils more than three decades ago. Not all youth programs funded by the NPCs and the OEO Youth Development Program were innovative or successful. But in a recent conversation, Dr. James L. Jones, who started the Mayor’s Office of Youth Opportunity Services as its first director, reaffirmed his confidence in the wisdom of the community, and that youth and adult community leaders learned from failures and mistakes as well as successes.

After working in my neighborhood youth center, I worked for several years on Dr. Jones’s staff, helping youth and adult Neighborhood Planning Council members develop their program proposals and vote on their Council’s budgets. As a former youth worker now wrapping up my career in gerontology, I would be interested in hearing from any aging Baby Boomers who once served on an NPC or OEO Youth Council when they were younger.

Let me close with an excerpt from the February 1970 OEO Instruction, which included the following rationale for youth involvement:

Experience has shown that the most successful programs, and the ones in which youth demonstrated the highest degree of responsibility and interest, were those where they were directly involved in the activity. Youth involvement both increases the relevance and effectiveness of the program and offers a means of providing leadership training and youth development through participation in the process of planning, operating, and evaluating programs. The process in this case becomes the product, since their involvement produces constructive attitude changes which are as important as the accomplishment of other specific program objectives.

This public policy and process of youth involvement from 50 years ago has had a lasting effect on my own life and career. I invite you to share your own experiences with OEO Youth Development Programs.

Check out the full text of the OEO Instruction, “Youth Development Program Policies,” Feb. 3, 1970.:

For interviews with individuals who served as youth or adult members of Neighborhood Planning Councils in upper Northwest DC and descriptions of programs they sponsored, go to:

Chevy Chase De-Segregates, The Neighborhood Organizes Youth Services,” website of Historic Chevy Chase DC, Sept. 24, 2016:

[Your Band] Played Here,” Washington City Paper, Aug. 5, 2011:

See also:

About the Author

Tony Sarmiento is Executive Director of Senior Service America, a national organization funded by the U.S. Department of Labor to operate the Senior Community Service Employment Program in 13 states.

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