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Young Guns

Newly Formed City Youth Commission Is Learning To Tackle The Problems Facing Young People In Baltimore

Jefferson Jackson Steele
NOT JUST FOR GROWNUPS: Youth Commission Chair Chantel Clea (seated at table, center) leads the group through discussion of a proposal put forth by Hassan Allen-Giordano (pictured at podium) at its recent meeting at City Hall.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 3/8/2006

At City Hall, beneath an ornate vaulted ceiling and surrounded by marble columns, representatives from Baltimore’s City Council districts prepare for a meeting. They eat french fries and talk about music before settling into their seats. These are the members of the Baltimore City Youth Commission. Ranging in age from 15 to 23, the commissioners were appointed by the mayor at the end of 2005. Its mission is to “improve the mental, physical, and social growth” of the city’s youth. They do this through City Council-style meetings at which they discuss issues pertaining to young people, in the hope of bridging the gap between the city’s youth and its government.

The members of the Youth Commission have won the admiration of community advocates and city agencies for their commitment to representing the city’s youth. But they are still finding their footing, as they figure out both the procedures involved in city government and their role in creating change.

The idea for the Youth Commission came from the City Council in 2003. Council President Sheila Dixon and a host of other council members sponsored a bill in August of that year to form the commission. The bill was eventually signed by Mayor Martin O’Malley on Nov. 9, 2004, and the group of 16 was sworn in Dec. 20, 2005. The group meets twice a month, and also holds committee meetings, to discuss and vote on recommendations to be passed on to the City Council and mayor. The commission also has begun holding youth forums to find out what problems young people in the city would like to see addressed. The commissioners have each met with their City Council district members and received advice from members of various city agencies who attend their meetings. They hope to provide input on policies that affect young people in the city, and while they haven’t had any of their recommendations passed into legislation by the City Council as of press time, the commissioners are optimistic that their suggestions will be taken seriously.

“On a practical level we want to basically make our voices heard,” says Chantel Clea, 23, the Youth Commission’s chair. “A lot of times there are [policies] that are being made in the city that impacts the youth, but no one asks us how we feel about it, or if we were put in their positions what would we do.”

In the short time the commission has existed, its members (appointed by the mayor after a long application and interview process) have been trained in Robert’s Rules of Order and political protocol. Like City Council, the commission meets regularly (twice a month), has agendas, does a roll call, goes over minutes from the previous meeting, hears testimony from city organizations and agencies, and votes on proposals, in this case proposals that may be sent to City Council to be voted on. The commission has impressed Hassan Allen-Giordano, political director of the Youth Empowerment Movement, a coalition of youth organizations in the city that lobbied for the creation of the commission.

“They’re very effective, very knowledgeable, very well-mannered young individuals,” Allen-Giordano says—especially Clea, who he says reminds him of Council President Dixon.

Clea, the oldest member of the group, balances her work for the commission with studying business administration at Morgan State University and working as an assistant to the national NAACP’s events planner. It’s a lot of work—she attends not only the regular meetings, but also committee meetings and community meetings in her City Council district. But if it is dragging on Clea, it hardly shows. At her office at the NAACP she has two computers going, one for her event-planning work and another for her Youth Commission work. She juggles the school, work, and the commission with a grace that seems to outstrip her age.

But, despite Allen-Giordano’s comparison to Dixon, Clea says she has no political aspirations: “I don’t want to be the next City Council president,” she says. “I don’t want to be the mayor. I just want to make a change in my community.”

So far, the commission has committees on education, laws that affect youth, teen parents, and parks and recreation, each of which works on reports about the topic it focuses on. The commission held a Youth Speak Out Forum on March 1 at which young people were given a chance to air their concerns about life in the city. The commission hopes to hold such forums on a regular basis.

Clea says the commission wants to heal the rift between the city’s government and its young people, many of whom feel the city makes policies that affect them without their input.

“I want the Youth Commission to serve as an outlet for [the city’s youth], because we’re not all bad,” she says. “Most of my friends walk around with pants off their behinds, but they’re not criminals. A lot of people, a lot of adults, just categorize them as hoodlums.”

But Clea says that youth do have something to offer the government. “We are the ones who have to walk through these [school] halls every day, or we are the ones who have to walk through these communities every day,” she says. “We would know what would work better than adults sitting behind their desk every day.”

One of the first organizations to really engage the Youth Commission has been the Youth Empowerment Movement. Earlier this year, the Youth Empowerment Movement wanted to promote a bill urging the city to hold investigative hearings to “report to the City Council on youth violence policies currently in place and to examine joint policies to effectively address and reduce the youth homicide rate throughout the City of Baltimore.” It brought the idea before the Youth Commission before taking it anywhere else. The Youth Empowerment Movement’s Allen-Giordano testified about the bill before the commission, which eventually passed it. The bill will now go on to the City Council with the Youth Commission’s recommendation.

But getting the bill through the fledgling Youth Commission process showed that there are still some kinks to be worked out of the system. For example, the first time the commission was presented with the bill, Clea was prepared to hold a vote on the issue following testimony from Allen-Giordano. However, it was pointed out that the members of the commission had not been given time to review the legislation and were therefore not prepared to vote on it. The bill had to be tabled until Feb. 23, when it could be presented again to the more-informed body. At both meetings, the commission had difficulty getting a quorum of nine members, which is required for the group to hold a vote. The Youth Commission has since decided to change the time of its meetings from 5 p.m. to 5:30p.m., to give its members a little more time to get from school to City Hall.

Clea says that it might take some time before the commission’s members are settled into their new tasks. Right now the commission needs four new members in order to cover all of its districts.

“The ones that were there, they take it extremely serious,” she says. “The ones that weren’t there, they’ve had circumstances come up in their lives that they may not be able to fulfill their seat in the Youth Commission. So right now we’re looking for commissioners in the 7th, the 9th, 10th, and the 12th districts.”

Clea also says she hopes to add diversity to the commission, which is currently made up primarily of African-American females.

Ernest Dorsey, division director for Youth Opportunities for the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, one of 12 city agencies assigned to aid the Youth Commission, says that with a little more time on the job he expects the group of young people will be a very effective voice for young people in the city.

“From what I’ve seen, these young people seem to be very committed, which I’ve been very impressed with,” Dorsey says. “I think that once they get additional training they are going to be a voice to reckon with.”

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