I used to think that children were at their best when they were seen, not heard. I guess that’s what happens when you’re a parent. You like to think that you know it all, that being a grown-up gives you all this magical insight into how the world really is and how it should work

Then, all these kids came along. They’ve dominated the headlines since the beginning of the year. These KIDS, which should stand for Kids Involved in Democratic Solutions, are trying to make a difference in the world we all live in.

This vocal generation is concerned about immigration, safety, sexual harassment, bullying, gender inequality, LBGT rights, and an uncertain economic future since our generation – the Boomers – have straddled them with mountains of debt with all our corporate welfare and tax cuts.

My how times have changed. When I was in high school all I could think of was not becoming a casualty in dodgeball, whether all that Clearasil I pasted on my face would start working and how to make actual eye contact with the opposite sex as I changed classes. High school has really changed over the last 60 years. I even hear schools are more than one room these days. Gone are the days where kids can be kids and free from worry.

Today’s high school students seem to be more aware of the world around them and aren’t playing the waiting game we all did to participate and have substantive debates about major issues. It’s obviously rankled the generations who’ve come before them, as the personal attacks and ridicule on social media and in the news has reached a new level of vitriol.

My favorite retort from anti-first amendment people is that these KIDS have not had enough life experience to make decisions. Having experience certainly has not stopped elected officials from making decisions about issues they know little about. At least these kids have done research, studied both sides and bring to the table data, facts and personal stories about what effect partisan and ill-informed decisions have on their lives.

I’m not going to get on a soapbox here and talk about their collective right to be upset about the way the world is these days. Instead, I’m going to use the blog to offer my fellow economic developers the opportunity of a lifetime.

Almost every community has a strategic plan. Yet of all the strategy sessions I have been a part of in my 26 years of community and economic development – which probably number close to 100 – very few have included input from high school students.

Community strategic plans are about a shared vision, a vision that is like a compass, not a paperweight. It is a tool that points the community in the right direction, just as a business plan is a written description of a business’s future. This strategic plan must be comprehensive and inclusive enough to include every stakeholder in the community, including the KIDS. A plan is only as good as the people providing input and if the plan ignores the generation that will eventually rise to power as decision makers and business owners, it is doomed to collect dust on the shelf.

This is where the engagement of youth can be very helpful. In prehistoric times we are told that sharks and dinosaurs lived in the same age. The dinosaur, full of bones and not very flexible, did not adjust and adapt. The shark, which does not have a bone in its body, evolved because of its inherent flexibility.

Think of today’s youth as those sharks, adding flexibility and adaptability instead of rigidity to the community. They are the eyes and ears of new ideas for the community, new markets and new business opportunities.

Youth may not know the intricacies of running a business or the nuances of economic development, but they do know what their generation likes and what it will take to keep them in the community once they graduate.

So here are my top 10 reasons why students should be a part of a community’s strategic plan for their future and for the community will benefit. In fact, there are so many reasons, I could not stop at 10.

  1. Empowering youth to participate in strategic plans will be a vehicle to groom future community and business leaders.
  2. Interacting with adults will teach them problem-solving skills and decision-making.
  3. Involvement in the decision-making process will teach youth policymaking rules and procedures and learn the art of compromise.
  4. Representative youths will become spokespersons of an important constituency not previously represented.
  5. Participation creates a sense of belonging and purpose for youth.
  6. Attending planning sessions allows students to become aware of their community’s assets, build upon them, and create their own entrepreneurial ventures.
  7. Taking part in the discussion allows youth and adults to share a common interest in a better place to live.
  8. Sharing ideas within a public setting will cause adults to see youth as vital members of the community.
  9. Engaged youth are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, less likely to drop out of school and less likely to be involved in criminal behavior.
  10. Including a diversity of generational fresh ideas will increase collective imaginations, creativity and energy.
  11. Youth will add a commitment to social justice and become more involved in volunteering and charitable works, making them valuable partners in solving the challenges in their community.
  12. As a more tech-savvy generation, they will propose training for skills necessary for the creation of jobs for their generation that will make your community smarter, more integrated and globally competitive.
  13. Will teach youth to recognize that people are not creatures of logic but creatures of emotion, prejudice, pride and vanity.
  14. Will learn how the skill of persuasion must maintain a balance between logic and feelings
  15. Youth will recognize that being right is irrelevant if you can’t convince people of your point of view

Today’s youth are not the problem. They are the solution. The real problems are communities unwilling to compromise and wanting to protect the status quo and the ideas of the old guard. Empowering youth to actively participate in the planning and designing of community and economic development initiatives will create a better community overall and prepare youth to actively lead the way into the future. Economic developers should work with school officials to make them aware of designing a community that they had a hand in creating.

Sure, the youth of today may still be worried about dodgeball and acne. But they also care deeply about the future they will inherit. Engaging KIDS early and often will keep them part of the community, and lighten the load for all of us old-timers who need new ideas and solutions.

– Maury