Nebraska’s youth seek a part to play. Let’s give them a role.

Jeff Yost | President & CEO, Nebraska Community Foundation

Young Nebraskans may find themselves in a strange position these days, if the results of Nebraska Community Foundation’s 2020 Youth Survey are any indication. A majority of the more than 1,300 students who responded to the survey say they are active in uplifting their communities through a variety of extracurriculars and organizations. Despite that engagement, however, many don’t feel invited to share their opinions on building a bright future for their hometown.

In January 2020, NCF began working with the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research (CPAR) to co-create the Nebraska Youth Survey with the purpose of examining young people’s perceptions and perspectives of their Greater Nebraska hometowns. Students in the Axtell, McCook, Columbus, Diller, Shickley, Ainsworth, Stuart and Norfolk communities responded to the online survey between January and May 2020.

To paraphrase a more talented wordsmith, all the state’s a stage, and we all have roles to play. But in the case of the young Nebraskans who completed the survey, it seems many haven’t even been scheduled for an audition. It is certainly heartening that 68% of respondents say they feel connected to their hometowns and 75% report being active in positive activities in their community. Let’s break that down. One thousand of them say they participate in school activities and athletics, 604 say they participate in church organizations, 330 say they work with civic or community organizations and 473 say they are involved in recreation-based organizations. I don’t think anyone can say these students aren’t invested in their communities.

But despite those reassuring numbers, a large portion feel excluded – 43% say they did not play a role in the community, and 42% say neither they nor their peers are invited to share their opinions on town projects or happenings.

“We need to make the youth feel more involved,” one student wrote anonymously. “So far everything seems to be run by adults and adults only.”

Or maybe they are being invited, but the offer appears disingenuous.

“I think the community says it involves the youth,” wrote another respondent. “But in reality, the adults only want the youth to continue exactly what they are doing.”

These young people are looking for a part to play in their communities, so what can we do to help them? How can we pull them onstage? The answer may already exist within the Nebraska Community Foundation network, where many hometowns have made successful efforts in growing youth engagement.

Nebraska City Community Foundation Fund hands substantial power to young people in the community through its youth advisory committee. Every year, the committee has authority to award 20% of the fund’s unrestricted endowment payout: $9,900. That’s real responsibility – and a signal the community values its youth’s opinions. Brown County Community Foundation Fund implemented a similar initiative. The fund delegates money to its youth grant committee, a group of high schoolers tasked with using that money to strengthen the community according to their collective vision.

Youth in McCook are invited to get involved in McCook Community Foundation Fund’s Youth Change Reaction Account, considered the “youth foundation” of the fund. The account has its own endowment, and its young members are encouraged to use its payout to address youth engagement and award grants to improve the community as they see fit. The group has worked on developing a disc golf course, directed funds to the local backpack program and purchased Chromebooks for students, among other projects.

These examples from across the NCF network demonstrate one method of finding a role for the younger residents of our communities, and it could be the way forward for many Nebraska hometowns. For other places, other routes may be more effective. Nebraskans are known for their ingenuity. If there’s a problem, we will find the answer. I have no doubt about that.

Uncovering the answer to this problem begins, I believe, by creating room at the table for youth in our communities. Affiliated funds have already found success in bringing young people into the conversation, listening to them and entrusting them with responsibility. Josie Gatti Schafer, CPAR director, said the findings suggest that “communities can foster a sense of connectedness by respecting and embracing natural differences of individuals as well as by taking steps to actively engage and learn from their younger residents.”

We can undertake these efforts with confidence, because we already know our youth love their hometowns. Almost half of the respondents say their ideal community is the size of their hometown, and 83% say they don’t think there is a negative stigma associated with returning to or staying in their current community. These youth are waiting in the stands for an invitation to play their part, and it’s our role to make room on the stage.

Jeff Yost is President and CEO of Nebraska Community Foundation. Feel free to contact him at jeffyost@nebcommfound.org.