Closing the Civic Achievement Gap? Youth Leadership in Boston

boston pbThis post continues our ongoing coverage of Boston’s first in the nation youth participatory budgeting initiative, which is soon starting up its second round. Read more about Boston’s Youth Lead the Change initiative here.


By Tara Grillos

In No Citizen Left Behind, Meira Levinson asserts “that there is a profound civic achievement gap between non-white, poor, and/or immigrant youth, on the one hand, and white, wealthier, and/or native-born youth, on the other.” She goes on to provide some guidelines for effective civic education to close this gap, emphasizing the importance of civic knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors.

The City of Boston’s Youth Lead the Change (YLC), a participatory budgeting program targeted at young people between the ages of 12 and 25, shows substantial potential as a tool for closing this civic achievement gap.

Participatory Budgeting, a process by which ordinary citizens directly determine government expenditures through deliberation and voting, originated in Porto Alegre in 1989 and in recent years has been adopted in several American cities including New York, Chicago and Vallejo, California. But the City of Boston’s is the first in the nation to focus solely on youth and to deliberately engage citizens below normal voting age, thus literally providing opportunities for civic engagement where previously none existed at all.

Boston’s commitment to youth programming was substantial even before the introduction of participatory budgeting. It boasts a summer jobs placement program, which serves 3,500 Boston students each year. And with respect to civic engagement specifically, the Mayor’s Youth Council offers an opportunity for high school students to have a voice in local government and serve as advisers to Mayor Walsh and senior leadership.

The relationship between these different youth programs (now all housed under one roof at the Boston Center for Youth and Families) allowed YLC to take advantage of existing networks to more easily engage with marginalized groups (though it remains a challenge to engage those young people who have not participated in any City programming to date). Relative to the Boston youth population of the same age as recorded in the census, YLC actually over-represented low-income and minority groups that are typically marginalized from the political process.

But YLC differs from Boston’s other youth programming in terms of its inclusiveness and its direct engagement with existing City government processes. While the Mayor’s Youth Council (MYC) makes great efforts to be representative of Boston’s diverse youth population, there is by necessity a limit to the number of young people who can be involved in such a program. YLC in contrast has the potential to allow every young person in Boston to participate in a government decision-making process, at a minimum by proposing an idea and casting a vote on the end result.

Those who participated more intensively as Change Agents, the committees of young people tasked with turning submitted ideas into feasible proposals, engaged directly with the City’s budgeting rules and requirements and with City officials themselves. In interviews with Change Agents, they cited benefits including a sense of community amongst participants, increased knowledge and skills, and feelings of empowerment.

In certain cases, when proposed projects were deemed ineligible for the participatory budgeting process (due to size restrictions or capital budgeting rules), young people reported that they were able to learn through their interactions with City officials about alternative routes through which to pursue the projects they cared about. For example, one group of students joined the process hoping to propose a re-purposing of the old East Boston library. That project proved ineligible for the participatory budgeting process, but through the process the students learned about upcoming community meetings regarding use of that space, and the students showed up and spoke out in favor of retaining the building as a public-use facility.

Such civic engagement “spillover effects” are of course purely anecdotal at this stage, but their existence indicates the potential for further expanding youth political involvement through the program in the future.

While it showed significant promise, the pilot year operated on a shortened timeline, which limited its reach and impact. City officials hope to expand the reach of the program this year, increasing voter turnout and retention among committee members.

The second round of Youth Lead the Change will kick-off with the first Steering Committee meeting on November 18th, 2014. Youth-focused organizations can still apply to become members of the Steering Committee. Applications are due November 10th and can be submitted at

According to City officials, this year’s process will differ from the pilot, with a more robust online engagement tool and greater coordination with the newly expanded MYC. Starting in January, Boston residents can submit ideas for this year’s budget, and the final vote is expected to take place in May. Check back with the Boston Youth Zone website for more details as they are released.



Tara Grillos is PhD candidate in Public Policy at Harvard University and a Democracy Fellow with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. As an Ash Center Summer Fellow in Innovation in 2014, she worked with the City of Boston on an evaluation of the pilot year of the youth-focused participatory budgeting program. Read more>>






Filed under Boston Participatory Budgeting, Cities, In the News, Innovation, Participation, Participatory Budgeting, Technology

2 Responses to Closing the Civic Achievement Gap? Youth Leadership in Boston

  1. Pingback: NCDD Community News » City of Cambridge Adopts PB, Partners with PBP

  2. Mr Chris Salamone, who has formerly served as a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and served as a leadership curriculum adviser at The University of Central Oklahoma is CEO of Lead America which is most respected youth leadership organizations with an unwavering commitment to quality and excellence in their academic offerings. The organization focuses on Leadership development, experiential career education & study abroad programs for high achieving high school and middle school students. Chris Salamone works to improve the lives of young people around the world through his many philanthropic endeavors. Mission is to ‘inspire and empower our young people to achieve their full potential and instill in them a sense of purpose, integrity, self confidence, and personal responsibility.’ This is achieved through engaging students (high school for most programs and middle school for a few) in conferences that combine challenging academics with hands-on experiential learning.

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