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October 9, 2013

Efforts underway to get millennials involved in government

Grant to Millennial Mayors Congress will fund outreach to young residents

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

METRO DETROIT — A grant from the Knight Foundation to the Millennial Mayors Congress (MMC) will allow the group to develop a pilot program that could encourage “millennials” — residents between the ages of 18 and 35 — to get involved in local government and help shape policies that will entice young people to stay in the region.

The MMC is a regional partnership of 23 metro Detroit cities, organized by the Michigan Suburbs Alliance (MSA). The MMC features two reps from each city: A veteran policymaker — usually a mayor or city manager — and an emerging leader.

Studies by the MMC indicate that while millennials account for 25 percent of all registered voters in metro Detroit, they hold only 6 percent of seats on local boards, committees and commissions. The MMC wants this figure to reach 10 percent by 2016.

“For the sake of representative government, we’re looking to close the gap between the portion of the population they are and how big a say they have in their community,” said Hayley Roberts, communications director for the MSA.

To that end, they’ve created the “On Board” initiative. The Knight Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to equipping people with the information needed to make decisions important to their community — recognized the MMC with a $50,000 grant at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference in Boston, part of their News Challenge Prototype Fund.

The pilot grant will pay for tests by the MMC, exploring why millennials do or don’t participate in local politics. Once the barriers to their participation are identified, the MMC will explore ways technology can help millennials overcome those obstacles.

Participating cities will be asked to list all boards, committees and commissions on their websites. The MMC will also develop a shared web-based interface where cities can post their openings, provide information on the different boards and furnish the applications necessary to sign up. A search engine will allow people to input their zip codes and interests, and bring up ways they can get involved. 

A select few cities, yet to be determined, will spearhead the pilot program. From there, it will be developed and refined and, in time, expanded to the other cities.

According to Hailey O’Brien, Hazel Park’s millennial representative in the MMC, one barrier they need to overcome may be the “information gap” among millennials as to the impact they have at the local level.

“A lot of people underestimate the role local government plays in their daily lives, from City Council to the local municipal boards,” O’Brien said. “They affect public safety, our library, how our parks are run — things you can access every day. Another big barrier is the idea you have to know everything in order to serve on a board. But you don’t need to know everything. You learn as you go.”

Roberts has also observed this mindset among millennials.

“We have millennial reps who have construction engineering degrees, who are highly qualified to sit on zoning boards dealing with permits, and yet because of the culture, they feel like they don’t have the years of experience and qualifications,” Roberts said.

Showing them what’s out there, and equipping them with the means to get involved, will be key to increasing the number of millennials serving in government.

“We know metro Detroit and Michigan are losing young people, and we have an idea of what they want, like mass transit and sustainable-energy policies. But what better way to retain them than to let them help shape the region?” Roberts said. “What do they want the metro Detroit of 30 years from now to look like, and how would they like to get there? Many of them don’t realize how many local boards and commissions there are, and how what they do has a significant impact on the community.” 

For more information about the Millennial Mayors Congress, visit http://millenialmayors.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.