In 2020, we shifted our energy from the streets to the polls. We claimed our power. The Biden-Harris administration must address the unique concerns of the voters that helped put them in the White House. This is an important moment in our country’s history: young Americans are more politically active and engaged than ever before, and we have more than earned our seat at the table.
Young Americans—specifically BIPOC youth—turned out in record breaking numbers and voted overwhelmingly for President Elect Joe Biden and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris. The Biden-Harris administration must address the unique concerns of the voters that helped put them in the White House. This is an important moment in our country’s history: young Americans are more politically active and engaged than ever before, and we expect this administration to be responsive to our needs. As the generation that led social movements over the last several years and fundamentally changed the political landscape that determined the election, we have more than earned our seat at the table. Yet, the systemic lack of sustained, youth-specific roles and Young Americans across the federal government limits young people’s agency. Young Americans are important stakeholders for every issue —and the need for formalized youth engagement work across agencies is pivotal to ensure the authentic engagement and advancement of the nation’s youngest constituency.
We come together as a diverse array of organizations led by and serving youth to call on the Biden-Harris administration to represent and reflect young people across the Executive Branch.
There is precedent for meaningful youth involvement at the federal government level across Departments. Examples of past involvement include:
While the White House Office of Public Engagement (OPE) does have a liaison to Young Americans, this role historically also has covered other portfolios instead of solely focusing on this demographic. Establishing an independent Office for the Engagement of Young Americans within the Executive Office of the President (EOP) that is devoted to inter-agency youth-programming collaboration would allow the federal government to better respond to and implement the expertise of the largest, most diverse generation of Americans.
Limiting youth engagement within an outreach portfolio often leads to short-term events and convenings that do not provide avenues for meaningful long-term youth decision-making and policy recommendations. Instead, developing an independent office that could work at the intersection of the OPE, Domestic Policy Council (DPC), National Security Council (NSC), and agencies focused on youth engagement would allow for sustainable youth inclusion. A similar office model can be seen through the Obama-Biden administration’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The Director of Youth Engagement, appointed to oversee the Office for Young Americans, should preferably be a member of Gen-Z and have a seat on both the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council. This is a necessary addition to both the domestic policy and nationals security team to prioritize issues disproportionately impacting young Americans, and ensure a seat at the table for young American voices, who have traditionally been shut out of the policy agenda. In addition to overseeing the Office of Young Americans, the Director would work to coordinate opportunities for senior members of the administration to see and hear from Young Americans in their communities, and ensure appropriate attention is paid to issues disproportionately impacting the younger generation. For example, the environment, structural racism, affordable healthcare, equity and cost of education and the gun violence epidemic are all issues that commonly drive the interest of young Americans.
We recommend that upon creation, the office work with relevant agencies to do a full audit of programs and department roles focused on engaging Young Americans. The results of this audit will inform the development of the inter-agency working group and be used to facilitate more streamlined federal engagement with Young Americans. For example, students should be represented within the Department of Education; young workers must be enfranchised by the Department of Labor; and the young Americans leading the climate justice movement must be included in conversations across climate agencies, offices, initiatives, and councils.
The youth engagement portfolio must extend beyond one staffer. We recommend that the Biden-Harris Transition Team formalize Youth Engagement roles, reinstate these positions in departments where these roles have been removed, select Young Americans for appointments, and add in other roles in departments that an interagency audit deems relevant. Youth Engagement personnel should not be a title tacked onto a staff person with other responsibilities; this role requires full-time, dedicated engagement with young people and a community-oriented skill set and expertise. Youth engagement needs to be a forethought, not an afterthought, in every department’s approach to policymaking. It is critical to have full-time staffers to ensure that conversations and policy happen with young people, not simply about them or to them.
Within the office focused on Young Americans should be 2-3 devoted staff members with both policy and engagement expertise. Additionally, we recommend that the Office of Presidential Personnel also consider having a staffer devoted to the hiring of Young Americans into government. This person would build their hiring plans with the office in mind, in addition building out youth service opportunities and strengthening the pipeline to bring more diverse, young public servants into the administration.
Qualifications: Since youth voice initiatives can easily become tokenizing without intentional relationship building, the selection of Youth Engagement personnel should not be taken lightly. It is valuable to have young staffers who are reflective of the demographic they serve. Ideally, these roles should be members of Generation-Z.
The young staff person(s) filling this role should:
One of the greatest barriers to institutionalizing youth-adult partnerships at the federal level is that the vast majority of the mechanisms outlined above depend on personnel acting in good faith to elevate youth leadership. To remove the unequal power-dynamic between youth and federal agencies, institutionalized policy levers are needed to strengthen and advance young citizen-adult policymaker relationships.
Meaningful youth-engagement requires Executive Branch coordination. Buy-in and leadership from the EOP are vital to coordinate inter-agency communication, collaboration, and synergy. Moreover, cross-departmental data-sharing and strategic planning are essential to prevent silos and foster transparency for and accountability to young constituents.
Additionally, while each agency has different priorities when building out personnel plans, we strongly encourage appropriate administration staff and leaders to consider Young Americans and the creation of youth engagement personnel who are empowered and formalized within their respective departments. For example, Student Voice, a “by students, for students” non-profit, recently published a report with key mechanisms on how to engage young people within the Department of Education. Implementing these steps can significantly strengthen the relationship between the administration and young people by improving communication, consistency, authenticity, and public policy outcomes that impact the lives of all Americans.