Deirdre Jonese Austin, a 17-year-old Independence High School senior, said that before joining GenerationNation, she hadn’t given much thought whether her voice mattered.
“Now I know it does,” she said.
“Each time a city council member, county commissioner, school board member or other city official takes time out of his or her busy schedule to meet with us, I feel like our voice matters,” Austin said.
Austin said that some of her most memorable moments include speaking with former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison on the achievement gap and participating in a “speed-dating style” forum with Mecklenburg County commissioner candidates.
Austin, a member of GenerationNation since 2011, said, “It’s great to be able to speak to government leaders from our community about what we the students are passionate about.”
GenerationNation Executive Director Amy Farrell said that’s one of the reasons the organization changed from Kids Voting Mecklenburg – an annual election-day event – in December 2011 to GenerationNation, to provide programs for Mecklenburg students to better understand and become involved with local government.
Farrell, involved with what now is GenerationNation for more than 10 years, said, “There was a huge need for students and officials to collaborate on community problems and solutions. Students are stakeholders in the community, and officials were eager to have this partnership to better understand their needs.”
GenerationNation does more than give students an outlet for their opinion; it also gives them the tools to make informed decisions, said Farrell. She said they regularly discuss current events, compare and contrast headlines and discuss different viewpoints.
“It’s important for them to learn how to use all the tools in the toolbox, learn to think critically, analyze information for the facts and collaborate and problem-solve with people from different backgrounds and perspectives,” Farrell said.
Members also get behind-the-scenes access to all aspects of government, working with city, county and school officials to address social and educational issues and receive hands-on experience in community planning and budgeting.
Farrell said that in January, students will meet with Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee, County Manager Dena Diorio and CMS interim Superintendent Ann Blakeney Clark to discuss priorities and budgets. Before those meetings, Farrell said, she will work with students to teach them about budgeting.
While budgeting may seem difficult even for some adults to understand, Farrell said, students shouldn’t worry about what they don’t know about local government.
“This is an opportunity to learn hands-on and to collaborate with officials on real life issues,” Farrell said.
“You can come into this hating politics, and that’s okay. All you need is a desire to make a difference. It’s all about improving the community we live in.”
GenerationNation is a nonprofit organization founded in 1992 by former Charlotte Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill and other civic leaders to give Mecklenburg County youths an opportunity to learn how local government and communities work.
During the 2013-14 school year, more than 35,000 public, private, magnet and home-schooled students engaged in civic-minded activities including mock elections and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council.
The youth council is a program of GenerationNation that operates in partnership with Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and CMS. The council currently has 65 members from more than 28 schools, including Providence Day School, West Mecklenburg and Myers Park.
The council always has open enrollment for high school students. There are no set hours of participation, and no prior achievements or accolades are necessary.
“Anyone who wants to make a difference should get involved,” Farrell said. “It’s a great way to network and explore future job opportunities.”
Austin, also a senior youth council member, said, “It means a lot to me to have this opportunity, because it has opened the door to many other opportunities for me.
“Other students should join because it will give them a chance to hear various perspectives on several topics, meet with prominent city officials and let their voices be heard.”