A group of Dunwoody High School students is trying to prove that young people can be involved and make a difference in local politics as part of a “mock City Council” that exposes the teens to governing and policy-making.
“We really represent change for the future … we are the future of the community and we need to be included,” said Matthew Eitel, 17, a junior, and a founding member of the high school’s City Council Club, which was started this year.
The stereotype of government, Eitel added, is that only “old people” are involved. The new club wants to be part of breaking down that stereotype.
“This is a unique chance to represent adolescents of Dunwoody,” Eitel said.
In January, the six students in the club — Eitel, Isaiah Gardner, Iman Hoque, Rachel Greenwald, Sarah Perling and Claire Tannen — presented results of a survey to the “official” City Council. The students had polled their classmates about what they wanted to see at the new park that will be built in a few years at the current Austin Elementary School site.
In February, several of the students shadowed city employees to learn more about the day-to-day activities of running a city. The students have also given input to the council on what they’d like to see at Brook Run Park.
For Hoque, 17 and a junior, attending City Council meetings and speaking with city elected officials and employees has exposed him to the importance of local government.
“Most people have a strong grasp of what’s happening at the national level … but not at the municipal level.” But it is at the local level where people actually have a say in how decisions are made, he said.
“It’s really opened my eyes to how government works,” added Gardner, 17, also a junior. “The most interesting takeaway for me is Dunwoody seems like a quiet city and I previously thought it was an inactive community — but I now see it’s really not quiet if you choose to be interactive.”
For Greenwald, 17 and a junior, it’s important for young people to learn to engage in municipal government.
“It’s essential for students to have a role in the government of their city so they can see they can make an impact,” she said. “We can have influence, even if we are not able to vote. It’s important to this group that we communicate that to other students.”
City Councilmember Pam Tallmadge has helped organize students to become more involved in city government. She and Assistant City Manager Jessica Guinn have worked together and with the students to ensure they have access to information and resources and to get their voices heard.
“A year ago, Denny [Mayor Denis Shortal] was talking about putting youth on committees and I thought that would be a great idea,” Tallmadge said. “We’re always saying we don’t have enough young families and youth at our meetings.”
So Tallmadge began investigating how a “mock council” could be created and learned there are numerous such high school groups in other areas and states. After meeting with Principal Tom McFerrin and Social Studies Department Chair Michael Berry and teacher Megan McClendon signed on as advisors, the new high school club was formed.
“They bring fresh, new ideas to the city,” Tallmadge said. “They should have a say in some of our decisions.”
Guinn said student involvement in local government can set the tone for future growth.
“I feel it’s important to get youth involved in local government because it gives them an opportunity to participate and interact on matters that are felt close to home,” she said in an email. “Their involvement and input on these decisions and initiatives may potentially mean more to them since they can actually feel and see the impact of a particular project happen within their own community.”