The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create the county’s first Youth Commission, answering long-standing calls from youth advocates to give young people a seat at the table shaping policies and programs that impact their lives.
The commission, which will be open to 18- to 26-year-olds with experience in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, will monitor the outcomes of youth-serving county departments and will also offer recommendations to the board and departments regarding youth-related policies, programs and have the power to audit county department budgets. The commission will also produce an annual “youth report card,” scoring how well various departments are serving L.A.’s young people.
“In a time when the County is engaged in major efforts to reform the juvenile justice system and aspects of child welfare, it is critical that we have those with lived experience be advocates, champions, and change agents as we all seek to improve the systems that impacted their lives from a very young age,” the motion from Supervisors Janice Hahn and Sheila Kuehl reads.
Dozens of youth advocates addressed the board at the meeting, speaking about the importance of using the input of the young people to drive systems reform.
“We know the different cracks we need to fill,” said Jose Canizal, an advocate with the National Foster Youth Institute (NFYI). “Let us be the hammer to be able to break the cycle.”
“When we acknowledge youth as experts in their own life, we begin to value them as partners in this work,” said youth advocate Carmen Noyola, an alumna of the foster care system.
Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), an advocacy group deeply involved with pushing for the commission’s creation and developing the model, said they’ve been working on it for eight years.
“There’s more than 200 commissions and committees in L.A. County, yet not a single one of those requires youth representation,” McGill said in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. She called the county’s failure to incorporate the input of young people into policy making “particularly problematic,” given that Los Angeles is home to a huge number of young people and the largest population of foster youth in the country.
Youth advocates from YJC, California Youth Connection, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, NFYI, Opportunity Youth Collaborative and more worked alongside the Commission for Children and Families to develop recommendations on how the Youth Commission should be designed, what powers it should have and how commissioners should be selected. More than 170 youth were engaged in producing the report through surveys, visioning sessions and stakeholder meetings.
The board motion adopted some, but not all, of the report’s recommendations. The report recommended allowing people as young as 16 to serve on the commission and not to restrict membership to just systems-impacted youth, opening up to other marginalized populations like LGBTQ youth and those who have experienced homelessness or mental health challenges.
The motion enacted by the supervisors requires commissioners to be at least 18 and to have lived experience in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. But it does indicate that the commission can form committees or work groups that include others who don’t fit these parameters to help ensure a wider range of voices are heard.
The report, presented to the Board in early December 2019, indicated that the youth consulted have concerns about being tokenized and lending credibility to the county without having any “real power.” To avoid this, the report recommended commissioners have direct access to the Board of Supervisors and the power to audit the budgets of county departments. These recommendations were adopted in the motion passed by the board.
“This motion came about because of youth power, youth pressure, youth mobilization,” McGill said. “And young people will have to continue to mobilize and organize the entire youth community in order to make the commission real.”
In looking at other examples of youth commissions and advisory bodies across the country, the county report found that “few examples of functioning quasi-governmental youth advisory bodies exist.” Those that do function effectively are adequately funded and staffed, including stipends for youth commissioners. To that end, the board motion calls for a funding plan to be developed and for the search for an executive director of the commission to begin immediately.
The commission will have 15 members with an option to increase to 19. Five of the commissioners will be selected by the supervisors, one from each district, and the remaining members will be selected through a youth election process.
Youth advocates like 26-year-old Anthony Robles of YJC acknowledged that there’s much work ahead of the commission, but he celebrated this historic win.
“The fact that we’re taking a step toward building youth empowerment in the county — and hopefully this develops into something larger and we get a youth development department — where young people have a say in the county’s business, I think we can transform the county,” Robles said.