Teens get their hands on city purse strings

Portia Jones and her colleagues were in heated debate, weighing the expenditure of several thousand dollars, when she bolted from the conference room to make an urgent phone call.

"Is Mom there?" the high school junior said, pleadingly, into the phone. "I hope she hasn't left yet. I'm going to be late." Here on an upper floor of a padlocked building in a poor area of poor Oakland, Calif., five youths, ages 13 to 20, are breaking boundaries.

While their families are sitting down to dinner, these young people are deciding how to spend city money to help the city's youths.

They're not advising, providing input, having a say, or helping out. They're deciding.

It's a first in the US, on this scale, and drawing attention within the child advocacy movement because of its risk and potential reward.

The dollars are serious, about $1 million per year. Yet the willingness to push the envelope is not all that surprising given Oakland's failure to turn the corner with more traditional methods. Schools here are failing, the crime rate is high, and most see growing up in Oakland as a battle against the odds.

So Portia, Chi Mei, Meuy, Raquel, and Fabian have been enlisted, without pay, to help steer taxpayer dollars to youth-run programs they find worthy. They're at it late this evening, seated around a table littered with empty soda cans and snack-food containers.

Should they allocate $5,000 to a group that wants to form a band? "It has to be something that will help the community. They came in here thinking it was just for themselves," says skeptical teen Raquel Mata. "Will they play community events, do workshops, that kind of thing?" someone else chimes in.

Concern about the nation's young people has risen steadily in the 1990s, energized by horrendous acts of juvenile violence and broad dissatisfaction with public schools. Notably in urban areas, "there's been a significant focus on youth and children since 1995," says Joan Criegger of the US Conference of Mayors.

A number of cities have launched ambitious youth-services programs. Others have raised taxes for youth spending.

But the San Francisco Bay Area, often a leader in social activism, went further. In 1991, San Francisco voters approved an initiative requiring the city to spend 2.5 percent of local property tax revenues on youth programs, beyond what had been allocated in the city budget to children. Nearby Oakland, where the problems of urban poverty are more acute, followed suit with a similar initiative in 1996.

Mandating a fixed portion of a budget to any category is not universally popular, regardless of the program involved. It amounts, say critics, to a fiscal straitjacket that usurps the role of elected officials. For others, that's precisely the point - to protect a part of the population with no political clout.

Empowering young people

Controversy aside, Oakland took the concept a step further. It dedicated 20 percent of the new revenue to a program whereby young people themselves learn to allocate funds, and do so, consistent with the goal of the ballot initiative to "help young people grow to become healthy, productive and honorable adults."

"I felt it was a good idea symbolically to empower the people who had a stake in the funds," says Stan Weisner, one of 10 adults on Oakland's 19-member youth-fund oversight committee.

"We needed a new approach," is the more blunt assessment of Franklin Hysten, a young member of the oversight committee and a leader of the push for putting some of the funds directly under the control of youths, defined as those under 21. Now a college sophomore, Mr. Hysten says, "I wanted it to be youth driven, with adult allies."

The youth-controlled funds are just beginning to dribble out. Portia and her colleagues began meeting in July and have dispensed about $12,000 so far, to a dance and martial arts group, an artists collective, a group that is organizing a Vietnamese New Year's celebration, a group working to expand job opportunities.

Peggy Loper, the adult mentor of the young group, attends their meetings. "I think they are clear about what they're doing," she says. "They're struggling to fund as many different ethnic groups as they can, to really look at the whole community."

The youth-committee members, who applied for the positions and sandwich meetings between the end of school day and the start of homework, have been given several days of training on things like proposal evaluation.

And shortly, the oversight committee will hire a consultant to evaluate the program.

Giving youths decisionmaking roles is gaining ground around the US. Michigan has a decade-long program involving youths in foundation grantmaking. "You have to get a group that is really reflective of the community. You want to go beyond the student-body presidents," says Rob Collier, who oversees youth grantmaking at the Council of Michigan Foundations.

Oakland is significantly different in that it involves public, not private, dollars. Some child advocates are not convinced it's going to work. "I think it's nonsense. I would not like to see teenagers dispersing millions of dollars. I have a 15-year-old and they just don't think real long term," says one critic who asked not to be named.

But others are convinced it's the logical extension of rhetoric and programs that embrace "youth empowerment" but too often stop short of giving youths final say in important matters.

"I see it on the horizon" for lots of programs, says Rebecca Salinas, a coordinator of youth programs in Seattle's Office of Education. Seattle voters last year approved a seven-year extension of a property-tax increase originally levied to fund youth programs. Only adults sit on the committee, but Salinas says youth involvement is inevitable.

Improving child services

Measuring the effectiveness of spending on youth programs is difficult, given the variables of the demographics and economic circumstances of any community.

In San Francisco, longtime activist Margaret Brodkin, who spearheaded the original ballot initiative and is head of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, says the additional funds "have made a profound difference in child services in San Francisco." San Francisco's law expires in 2001 and Ms. Brodkin says efforts are already beginning to have the program renewed.

The effectiveness of youth-directed funding in Oakland, versus adult-directed, will be doubly difficult to track.

But supporters say the idea can succeed in two ways. They hope the grants themselves will be effective. But the process of developing a cadre of youths experienced in community decisionmaking will also build leadership.

"Money isn't everything," says Ms. Loper, the mentor. The important thing is that the young people on the committee learn about the community itself."

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