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Joe Supervielle:

Welcome to Voices in Local Government, an ICMA podcast. My name is Joe Supervielle. Today's topic is how kids can design better cities with Mara Mintzer, co-founder and executive director of Growing Up Boulder and Sarah Huntley, director of communication engagement of the City of Boulder. Thanks for joining us today.

Mara Mintzer:

Thanks so much for having us.

Joe Supervielle:

Right off the top, interesting topic but there might be some skeptics out there whether they have kids or not. So I think a common first reactions people can understand kids, whether we're talking about real young preschoolers, all the way through high school. There's that innocence or even spark of imagination that can be tapped into, but also the skepticism. How can that possibly translate into realistic planning and execution, let alone budgeting, which we'll get into for local government. So why don't we just start there? How does this actually work? How can the opinions of kids transform into real life solutions?

Mara Mintzer:

Well, maybe I'll kick it off. This is Mara and that question is a really good one. And even I was skeptical when I first heard about this, of what does that look like and what ages of kid and can this actually work. But after 13 years of doing this work, not only do I think it can work, I actually think it creates better communities for all of us. Doesn't matter if you have your own children or not, because child friendly cities and hearing their voices are actually sustainable, healthier, more equitable cities for everyone.

Mara Mintzer:

One example of why a child friendly city or hearing a young person's voice matters is that when you design with children in mind or if they share their input, it actually usually creates more usable cities. So for example, we heard from young people that they wanted to be able to walk more places, they wanted to use public transit more, be able to bike. Well, that works well for someone say who cannot drive because they have a site impairment or for someone who maybe uses a wheelchair or a walker, if they want a smooth sidewalk for biking or for even pushing a stroller, a parent pushing the stroller that works really well for someone in a wheelchair. So there are so many different reasons and I'm going to let Sarah chime in too about from a city perspective why it's beneficial.

Sarah Huntley:

Terrific. Thank you, Mara. Yes, this is Sarah from the City of Boulder. And I will say that we have had a lot of success hearing from children. In part, I think because of that imaginative spark that you mentioned earlier, Joe. But we find that kids, they often say what's on adults' minds, but adults might not be willing to say it so that can be really helpful to get that feedback into the room and on the table. They also come up with ideas that can often be linked to themes that their grown up counterparts are also interested in. So some of the artwork, for example, about some of the playgrounds that they've designed really tell us that they want opportunities for daring and adventure. And of course, as a city, we want to do that safely, but that helps us find that right balance.

Sarah Huntley:

I also want to say that traditionally, when I came into this topic, I thought, "Okay, well, we're probably talking middle school and high school because they might have a little bit more of an idea of the world around them and local government." But Mara's group has helped us reach very young children, as young as preschoolers and younger than that. One of my favorite projects is still when we were doing our transportation master plan and Mara worked with a preschool class to put GoPro cameras on the little kids' heads as they walked around town and they gave commentary about what they could see and whether the cars could see them. And it was really just very insightful and entertaining and people love to hear from kids. So we have enjoyed this partnership for those reasons.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. If the audience hears me laughing in the background, I've got a three and a half and a one and a half year old so some of this is hitting home already. I am the target demo for pushing a stroller around. I actually brought this up with my son, he's three and a half and chocolate milk drinking fountains and elephants roaming free were his top priorities on the imagination side. He did say that the elephants would take turns with the cars at the stop sign, so he thinks he's being reasonable. But after we got past the silly part, he unprompted mentioned that he wanted less traffic and clean potties as he calls it at the park that fit him too, that are the right size. And maybe he absorbed some of that from me sitting in the car complaining about traffic or like, "Hey, we're going here, but it's going to be tough so you got to use the bathroom before we go and soon as we get home."

Joe Supervielle:

So maybe he just absorbed that for me, but it seemed like a real, "Oh, he's onto something here." And I really do wish this was better as a citizen where I live so maybe legitimate complaints. When you're in these focus groups and we'll get into the logistics on how you execute it, but when you hear those ideas from the kids, what's the next step to actually evaluate or figure out what a potential action item is from the city's point of view?

Sarah Huntley:

I would say that it helps to have partners who work with young people on a regular basis because they can help us identify what the core value might be behind having elephants roam free on the streets. And so we can really make sure that we're understanding the essence of what that young person is saying they want.

Joe Supervielle:

So kind of like the why they said that, not just the end item, which is not going to happen obviously, but what sparked them to think that or what's maybe could be improved.

Sarah Huntley:

Correct. So in this case, the essence might be more fun, more animals and being able to interact with the world around us, perhaps even the more exotic world around us, for those of us who don't have elephants roaming in our forests, around our Savannah. It helps to be able to make those kinds of translations and interpretations. We really like to have the kids speak themselves whenever possible. They can present their thoughts and their ideas. Not only do we hear it directly from the source as a local government, it's really great capacity building for these young people, right? And empowerment for them. So we often try to hear that.

Sarah Huntley:

There are, of course, going to be times with grownups and children that suggestions are made that we just can't do as a local government. And we try to bring the same level of responsiveness to young people's voices as we do for our local constituency, and really make sure we can explain some of the limitations. We recently had a visioning exercise around a particular part of town, and these kids at this classroom came up with such great ideas and I had an opportunity to sit down with one of them and her particular idea is going to cost a lot of money. So we had an opportunity to talk about long term planning, and like when you have a piggy bank and there's something you really want to save up for. You have to put some money aside. And then at the end of the day, if that's the vision you still want, that's the thing you want to buy or purchase, you can do it. Sometimes we have to have those kinds of conversations.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. It's a good learning experience for the kids too. Not just the backend of what the city might get out of it, but trying to teach them whether it's about money and saving or just how the local government works. There a few more details on how the process works, is it like focus groups in the classroom or how do you collect the data?

Mara Mintzer:

One thing we learned really early on is to not run our meetings the way adults run their meetings, because we tried that and the kids walked, these were teenagers but they walked right out on us. So we said, "Wait a minute, let's hold up and really rethink this." What we found is it's very successful if we go to where young people already are spending time, so that might be an afterschool program. It might be a school day in a classroom. It might be an event where young people are going. And then in an ideal world, we'll actually meet with the same group of kids multiple times to really give them time to develop their ideas and do research on their own. But we don't always have that luxury so we do have different ways of working with kids if it's only a one time session, but ideally it all starts with the same process.

Mara Mintzer:

It's we capture the kids' lived experiences. So kids are experts on their own world, and so we will have them draw or photograph or somehow record in writing their ideas already. Then we have them understand the project a little bit more and maybe research, really look at, well, what are some great practices in the world that we can pull from? What don't we already know that we need to know and interview experts? And then finally the kids synthesize their original ideas and their new research and they present out their vision for the future. And ideally, we do that with some adult decision makers in the room, and there's actually a dialogue. There's a back and forth between them kind of like what Sarah was describing. She was one of those adults in the room who was giving feedback and explaining where this might be possible, this might not.

Mara Mintzer:

And then we always create some sort of a document that can live on beyond the project. So it's often a report, but it could also be visual documentation so that then planners can take that with them and refer back to it. And one thing I want to note is that kids grow up very quickly, but city processes take a very long time. And so often what will happen is kids will share an idea and then six years later, it's time to actually implement it. But because of those reports and because we have our same staff who has a memory, we're able to tie it back and utilize their ideas. And we just saw that happen with a teen friendly park idea. It took six years to fully realize, but boy, will it be amazing and very impactful.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. So I was just going to ask if you could start sharing some successful examples and maybe it's not, I'm getting the impression that it's not necessarily a kid or group of kids had this idea and then it developed and turned into something, but it could also be there are projects or needs of the community that are already in the works and some of these ideas can fit into something that's already going to happen. Is that fair to say?

Mara Mintzer:

I think it can go both ways. The way we have our setup, it is often the city coming to Growing Up Boulder and saying, "Here are our top priorities. We've asked all of our public facing departments and here are the top priorities, which do you think you can provide the most meaningful youth input on?" There are other places that reverse it and have it be the kids are generating, this is the top issue we care about, and actually we do have some of that too through our youth opportunities, advisory board. So I think both are viable.

Joe Supervielle:

Circling back to some successful examples are there, I know housing and even transportation are two of the bigger ones. Are there any specifics, whether it was Boulder or other locations that you can share?

Sarah Huntley:

I would say transportation master plan has been a very ripe place for young people's voices, particularly around alternative modes of transit and traffic and safe ways to get around town. Mayor's group put together a child friendly map, which was from feedback from young people and families, which has been very popular on where to go in town and how best to get from one point to another point, which again has terrific capacity building for young people to learn to navigate. We've had a lot of success with park design as Mara said, and that might be considered more traditional places for youth involvement, because you're designing playgrounds and such and of course, they ought to have a voice in that.

Sarah Huntley:

But I would also say that we've had young people participate in some pretty heavy topics as well. Recently I've been involved in the reimagining policing effort here in the City of Boulder where we're trying to define what we want from our police department in the future. So future being anywhere from three to 10 years, what are the goals we're going to be striving for? And we've had young people of all ages as well as we've also focused on young people who may have been impacted in their lived experiences by policing in a variety of different ways help us understand what's important to them and help us define some focus areas that now we will be putting strategies to. So there's a wide range of ways and different topics that kids can engage on and that are helpful to local government.

Joe Supervielle:

Well, you mentioned heavy topics, even tragic topics could sometimes come up. Mara, I don't know if you wanted to speak on a couple of the specifics there, but it sounds like there's also that unique perspective when the unthinkable happens.

Mara Mintzer:

Yeah. Boulders had a lot and our whole area has had a lot of really hard tragedies recently. And if we're truly serving young people, then this is their experience. We need to be there to hear from them and help them work through it. So we're working on the Marshall Fire, but what comes to mind even more specifically at this moment is we received a grant from the community foundation of Boulder County to hear from young people how they wanted to heal from the tragic King Soopers shooting. And really for them not much attention had been paid to how it was affecting young people and everything just moved so quickly. And so we have spent the past few months working with a group of about 18 high school students to create a youth healing day of remembrance, and it is truly incredible and humbling to work with these brilliant young people.

Mara Mintzer:

The way we've worked with them is first by supporting them with their own healing of giving them tools for their own wellness, and how do you even manage understanding something so big, especially with all the layers from COVID and racism and the fires and just everything piled on. So working through that with them, but then they get to give back to the community. One thing I thought that was super interesting was I thought they were going to want to build a day for just their peers, but they said, "No, we want it for the younger children too. We want it for our grandparents. We want it for all ages." And so our job as adults is to be allies and support them and realizing their vision, and I think it's going to be pretty powerful.

Sarah Huntley:

I'd like to just add to that that one of the things I love about young people is they're almost always inclusive in their thinking. When we ask kids for things they'd like to see in the community, if they think about their grandparents, they think about communities of color. They think about LGBTQ community members. They want to be welcoming and inclusive to all, and so their ideas really encourage adults to think inclusively and brings out the best in all of our community conversations.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah, that goes back to the not necessarily innocence, but just the more positive outlook that a kid can bring to some topics that can wear adults down over time, even though we still know it's important and something we got to keep working at, it's good to get energized from the more optimistic crowd there. So now I'd like to transition a little bit to talk about how other locations can put similar programs or even maybe implement this. I know there's UNICEF Child Friendly City program in place. So before we get into steps, I just want to address maybe that question that a listener or city manager or an engagement director like Sarah might have from a different location, which is this all sounds great. They want to support it.

Joe Supervielle:

They want to get involved and do something similar, but how are we paying for this? We just don't have budget. It's nice, maybe places like Boulder or others have the public support and the buy-in to make these kind of things happen. But hey, we're over here in this town and we're barely holding it together providing the basic services as it is so they can maybe feel overwhelmed or that it's not realistic. But I think if you break it down into smaller steps, there's a clear pathway to actually make this happen.

Mara Mintzer:

Sure. I think it's such a great question, and it's something I think about all the time, because I previously had worked in a highly impacted community in California and also many highly impacted communities in New York City. So I'm always wearing the hat of let's do this beyond the Boulder bubble as it's often called. And so one of the things I think that works for any community is to start small. It can feel so overwhelming. I know when I used to look at examples of great youth voice, I thought, "How are we ever going to do this in Boulder?"

Mara Mintzer:

But we started very small. I was volunteering my time. I partnered with the University of Colorado and looked at resources they had there. And we just started by creating one project. And what happened was it was such a successful project that the city actually came to us and said, "Well, could you get some youth voice on this or that?" Some of the times it's taking existing money and just slightly repurposing it to if you're looking at engagement, is there a way that youth engagement in the future becomes one of the groups that you're thinking about reaching out to or if you're applying for a grant, really including youth voice in the grant from the very beginning, some of it's just a mindset shift.

Sarah Huntley:

I will add to that that you can scale your budget if you can only do one project, right, that's a great place to start and then take the learnings from that. Also we have found in our partnership with Growing Up Boulder, that they're very generous with sharing their expertise. So one of the things that has worked well for us is to invest some money in training of our engagement staff across the organization, so that some of the basic outreach and basic principles of good youth engagement, we can use over and over again and really take those principles and put them into practice on our own. And then we save our budget for the more complex issues or the place where we might really be able to break new ground or be innovative and test a new theory, and that's been very effective.

Mara Mintzer:

So one of the things that Growing Up Boulder has started to offer is workshop model so that we can train other communities to do this. And actually it came out of Sarah and I developing it together for conference. And I think it was the IAAP two conference and it was such a successful workshop. It's interactive, but we do it over Zoom that we've started offering this for other communities around the world. And really, we also created a book called Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices for Planning Sustainable Communities as a how to guide for other communities, because we would get these questions so often. And so that was written by lead authors, Tori Derr and Louise Chawla, who are both professors who helped start Growing Up Older. And so I highly recommend that communities look into both those options as well as a TEDx talk that I did that was featured on Ted. And that I've actually been told has been used around the world as a way to begin these conversations in communities that might have never thought about child and youth voice.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. And we'll have both the book, the Ted talk and other resources linked on the ICMA webpage for this podcast. Sarah, if I'm a city manager listening to this, maybe I have someone like you on staff already, maybe I don't. So if I'm the manager and I don't necessarily know what to do next and it's not going to be something I can focus on every day, who can I delegate that to or what kind of, not necessarily just the title, but what kind of skill set or what kind of drive is needed for someone on the local staff to be the point person and then partner with another third party organization, whether it's Growing Up Boulder or something more local, who's the right person for the job?

Sarah Huntley:

Right. So typically, I would say if you have a communications or engagement department, they're thinking about this all the time anyway, is how to get more voices into local government. If you don't though, and a lot of smaller communities might not. I would say you want to be looking to project managers who are designing programs or services or specific locations that are intended to serve the public. Many of them, if you think of a traditional city planner for example, they know that hearing from the community is an important part of any process. So they're probably already starting to think about those things and really encouraging them to think about the community much more broadly. It's not just your voters, right? It's the people who are going to use the service that you're designing or use the location that you're designing and what are the lived experiences they can bring to the table?

Sarah Huntley:

And usually at a project manager level, you'll get some creative thinking going. There are some logical departments, I would say parks and recreation, your libraries. If you have any school based programs in your city already, those are good places to start as well. It's awesome to have a teacher thinking things through with you. One of the things I love about Growing Up Boulder is they have a long time educator who really thinks about how to make this beneficial for teachers achieving some of the goals they have and really making it be about the kids learning as much as the local government learns from the kids.

Joe Supervielle:

Sure. It's not necessarily new budget or new staff resources. It's just repurposing or adding a new project or changing what a particular focus could be for a given period to make this kind of thing happen.

Sarah Huntley:

The other thing I'll say is that in simplifying the questions you ask the community. So if you look at the questions you're already going to ask them on a project, say that you're going to ask adults and stepping back and just taking a few minutes to think about how you would talk to this project with a younger person, it's free and it's incredibly effective at immediately expanding your base for having conversations. If you can simplify the questions, get down to the essence, just the way you might talking to an elementary school kid. And I'm not suggesting that you have to be condescending in that, but simplifying and demystifying local government is an incredibly valuable thing to do no matter who your audience is. And we've seen huge cost savings just making sure the questions we ask are simple and effective. Often if they're too complex, you end up not getting the information you need and having to go back out anyway.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. And this engagement is maybe an intangible benefit of it is just getting these kids, whether it's the three year old or the 17 year old in high school off to a good start and a better start learning about government, learning about why where they live matters, how they maybe most importantly how they can have an impact on it for the better.

Mara Mintzer:

Joe, I would say we do measurements that show pre and post-project, if it's had an effect on young people and we consistently find that young people want to have a voice in decisions which affect them much more after they have worked on a project and they continue to stay involved in civics.

Joe Supervielle:

Well, Mara, Sarah, thanks for your time today. Thanks for all the efforts. Growingupboulder.org is the website and the Ted talk in the book will also be linked on icma.com. Thank you.

Mara Mintzer:

Thanks so much.

 

 

Episode is sponsored by

Guest Information


Mara Mintzer, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Growing Up Boulder

Sarah Huntley, Director of Communication and Engagement, City of Boulder Colorado

Episode Notes

Mara Mintzer, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Growing Up Boulder, and Sarah Huntley, Director of Communication and Engagement, City of Boulder Colorado discuss how ideas from kids can help local government design better cities and develop engaged citizens.

  • Why the effort is worth it.
  • How the work is done.
  • Examples of sample projects that were approved and completed, including transportation planning and an organized response to a mass-shooting.

Resources:

Use code ICMA25 for 25% of Placemaking with Children and Youth

Mara Mintzer's TedTalk

Growing Up Boulder

 

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