By Olivia Chiang, Siya Verma and Owen Day
After two years of advocacy, the youth of San Mateo achieved a major victory to expand our representation in local government. On March 6th, the San Mateo City Council unanimously approved an ordinance creating two designated youth advisory seats on our city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. We hope this starts a wave across the County and inspires young people and local elected officials to empower youth into leadership and embrace more inclusive representation in decision-making. This article offers insight into our journey toward achieving this ordinance, its benefits, and the future of our activism.
For two years now, we have been on a mission to uplift student participation in San Mateo’s policy-making bodies, launching a county-wide petition and lobbying the City Council to prioritize youth representation on boards and commissions. We are a coalition of students working with San Mateo Mayor Amourence Lee to uplift youth voices in local government. As students passionate about representation and civic engagement in our community, we have noticed an alarming deficit of youth voices within higher-level policy-making. A 2017 demographic survey report found that no San Mateans under twenty-five years old served on any of the thirty-five available seats on our city’s boards and commissions.
While the Youth Advisory Council, sponsored by the Parks and Recreation Department, certainly provides opportunities to immerse ourselves in our local government, it fails to address youth issues that are inextricably linked to the responsibilities of city boards and commissions. The city’s climate policy, for instance, affects our futures more than any other generation of San Mateans. Thus, it is crucial that our ideas are represented when considering how we move forward in sustainable policymaking.
On February 21st, we succeeded in petitioning the City Council to approve a new policy creating two non-voting advisory seats, designated for youth ages thirteen to seventeen years old, on the Parks and Recreation Commission. These ex-officio seats, which have proved successful in Belmont, will allow young San Mateans to take on all the same duties as other council members, aside from voting. Advisory members will not only introduce new perspectives to the commission but also contribute their energy and time, demonstrating their commitment to civic responsibility.
However, our work is not yet over; representation on one commission will not comprehensively cover youth issues. Beyond Parks and Recreation, it is vital that the City Council expand youth advisory seats to other boards and commissions young San Mateans have a stake in. As mentioned previously, sustainable development is a critical issue; as such, young San Mateans deserve to have a voice on the Sustainability and Infrastructure Commission. In addition, the Community Relations Commission vows to seek members “from various sectors of the community”—explicitly including high schoolers. The establishment of advisory seats would institutionally introduce this youth perspective on social services, such as housing. Finally, high school students have unique insights into San Mateo’s libraries as study spaces and research resources and would make significant contributions to the Library Board.
San Mateo’s General Plan 2040 Vision & Values states that the city ought to “embrace diversity and respect the experiences, contributions, and aspirations of people of all ages.” We urge the City Council to act in accordance with its plan and continue to support greater representation of youth across all key commissions and boards. These changes will open the door for students to be meaningfully involved in policy-making, simultaneously granting us a much-needed platform on critical issues and preparing us to be active citizens throughout our lives.
We hope all San Mateans will work with us to uplift youth voices and become a model for youth representation across the County. Mayor Lee stated, “Sometimes we need to bring our own chairs to the table. We need youth voices now. Our future depends on it.”
Olivia Chiang is a junior at The Nueva School and a passionate advocate for collaborative dialogue and civic engagement as a means to bridge partisan divides nationwide.
Owen Day is a freshman at Lydian Academy working for more equitable representation in local politics and building progressive policies that benefit everyone.
Siya Verma is a high school junior, born and raised in the Bay Area, and founder of The Aurora, a nonprofit that consults organizations in matters regarding Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access and mental health.