Putting power in the hands of youth: In St. Paul Youth Commission, students have chance to create ‘measurable change’

Danielle Wong, article author, headshot
Danielle Wong, Eastview High School

NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO, adults always seem to hold the power.

However, as a nonprofit organization in St. Paul proves, there can be strength in the innovative ideas of young people.

The Saint Paul Youth Commission was created nine years ago by Mayor Chris Coleman to provide local high school students with an opportunity to have their voices heard and to make their communities better places.

The 22-member group meets regularly to discuss public policy issues ranging from sex trafficking to teen homelessness, sometimes presenting solutions to city officials. It’s a commitment of 10 to 15 hours per month, with tangible outcomes.

Young people involved in the St. Paul Youth Commission. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Youth Commission)

In 2008, the commission helped design the Canvas, an arts-based, teen-run space within the Hancock Rec Center near Hamline University. In 2013, the mayor’s office approached the commission about addressing the topic of sex trafficking. What ensued was a two-year project that highlighted the correlation between sex trafficking and teen homelessness, even advocating for the passing of the Youth Homelessness Act at the state legislature.

At the commission, members say, everything is run by youth. Meetings are led by rotating co-chairs, and all issues and solutions are chosen by the teens themselves.

Sebastian Alfonzo, a junior at 
St. Paul Central High School, has been on the commission for three years — two of which he has served on the Transit Access Subcommittee, which has recently advocated for free city bus access to all St. Paul high school students.

Members of the St. Paul Youth Commision pose for a photo. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul Youth Commision)

Alfonzo said the group sometimes has had adult facilitators, but “we all decided what (were) the projects we were going to do, we all decided what (were) the philanthropy organizations we were going to work with — pretty much every decision is made by the young people.”

When the youth do work with adults or other organizations, it is stressed that the relationship is a partnership. Tabitha Mitchell, the coordinator of the commission, said if not done the right way, a “partnership” can become disempowering
 to teens.

“The youth should benefit from this transaction so that you can tell their story,” Mitchell said. “(The adults) can say that you have youth voice in your report, but let’s really make it about building relationships.”

Sometimes, Mitchell said, organizations or city officials approach the youth commission with the intent of doing what she calls the “tokenization of youth voices,” or, in other words, when adults give superficial importance to youth voices.

“That youth voice is often taken for granted because, well, the adults are the ones who have the power, they’ve lived longer, they know what they’re talking about,” said Spencer Willits, a junior at Great River School in St. Paul who is one of the youth commissioners. “I think (it’s) incredibly important to provide that outlet for youth to be heard. Because they have a lot to say.”

As some city officials are learning, there is power in youth voice, ideas and involvement.

“What do they [youth] see as a solution — not to end it [an issue], but how to make it a little better?” Mitchell said. “To take one step forward in progress, what do they see, as opposed to adults swooping in?”


Last June, the commission wrapped up its Transit Access project, which had a long-term goal to provide free city bus passes to all St. Paul students — just as Minneapolis does.

Transportation is an issue that Willits has been passionate about for a while and that he is well versed in. At Great River School, a public Montessori charter school that Willits attends in St. Paul, it is cheaper to provide free bus passes than to hire school buses for a small population, he said.

“Ever since seventh grade I’ve gone to school in this certain environment where I have access to transportation and I can get wherever I need to, and I took it pretty much for granted,” he said. “Then when I joined the youth commission, and saw this as a topic, I realized I have valuable input.”

Collaborating with Metro Transit and the St. Paul school board, the organization launched its own pilot program at select high schools using a grant of $30,000 over two years from various contributors.

“The four of us [on the Transit Access Subcommittee] worked with the grant that had been given the previous year and ran our own small-scale pilot program, providing youth with free bus access for approximately a dozen … high schoolers at Harding and Central High School,” Willits said.

Over the course of three months, the team collected weekly data on how the bus passes were being used and how often, and on other feedback. They then compiled that data and presented it to the school board and Metropolitan Council.

Overall, students were “very on board” with the idea of free bus passes, Willits said, but the biggest roadblock seemed to be parents concerned with the safety of their teens on a city bus.

Alfonzo believes the organization has been effective within St. Paul communities, especially in the case of the Transit Access Subcommittee.

“I think it’s put pressure on groups like the school board and the Met (Metropolitan) Council to keep considering the issue,” he said. “They know that it’s important to young people so they know it’s an important issue in general … [It has] put pressure on people in power.”


For students who are already hyper-involved in activities at school, Alfonzo said there is more than one way for youth to be empowered and involved.

“I think it’s truly important to stay educated on what’s going on … not just in the world, but in your own community,” he said. “Sometimes a lot of us read huge news organizations or read all these books, and we don’t really know what’s really going on in our own backyard.”

Even if you’re able to only attend neighborhood events, it makes a difference, he said.

As for the youth commission, Willits said it is having a positive impact on students and is a good opportunity to be proactive in his community.

“I think the youth commission, more than anything else,” he said, “has given me a way to actually project my voice and cause measurable change.”