This is the first post in a new series I am trying out, “Lessons from Europe,” and I wanted to begin with a topic that it is very important to me- civic engagement. It is essential for the future of democracy to have youth involved in the process. They should understand the political systems and policymaking processes where they live, and they should have their voices heard by our elected leaders and government officials. This point is reinforced by Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states the following-
“1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.”
I found two great examples of youth involvement in the political process in Europe- Children’s Parliaments and the European Youth Event.
In his book, Europe’s Promise, Steven Hill talks about the Children’s Parliaments in Germany. These bodies are composed of school-aged children and meet throughout the year. Hill writes that they “convene and debate issues and are actually permitted to propose legislation to the local city council.” (p. 243, italics in original)
In Finland, students 15-16 years old have the opportunity to participate in the Youth Parliament. According to the brochure the Embassy of Finland sent me, “Its objective is to promote social participation and integration among young people and foster interest in social affairs in general and Parliament in particular.” The brochure makes the point that one of the most important pieces of participating in the Youth Parliament is contacting MP’s and local government officials.
European Youth Event
In addition to the Children’s Parliaments, I also found something called the European Youth Event. The EYE was a three-day event organized by the European Parliament and other agencies. During the event thousands of Europeans ages 16-30 discussed a variety of topics pertinent to Europe. According to the report, “The core aim of the European Youth Event was to demonstrate that young people are willing to engage in developing a brighter future for a more prosperous, inclusive, innovative, and sustainable European Union, and that they are an invaluable source for ideas on how to achieve this.” (p.9, italics mine) After the EYE finished, the final report was given to MEP’s, and some of the participants were allowed to present ideas to MEP’s themselves. I think its great that one of the main institutions of the EU, along with other bodies, see the importance of youth participating in the political process and organize an event such as the EYE.
The biggest lesson here is that while youth in the US are allowed to speak at local meetings (especially school board meetings) and write to their elected officials, our local/state governments do not organize anything like the Children’s Parliaments or EYE. We have simulations like Model UN or, in the case of Wisconsin, Badger Girls and Badger Boys, but they are just simulations. To really make them more beneficial to participants, they should be able to present their work to elected officials or policymakers and take their discussions “to the next level.” Why don’t we have an American Youth Congress that gathers in Washington, DC, for three or four days, discussing issues and presenting ideas for solutions to members of Congress and other officials? Surely, we could have something like that at the state level. The key though, is that like the Children’s Parliament and EYE, our actual legislatures must be involved in organizing them and promoting them. Our elected officials must see American youth as invaluable as well.
The other lesson is more of a broader issue- the US has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We signed it (five years after it entered into force), but we have not ratified it. Why is that? What are waiting on?
In my next post, I will continue this theme of political participation and discuss the political festivals in Sweden (Almedalen) and Denmark (Folkemødet.)
Thanks for reading.