The following scenario happens every day in small towns across the country: City Fathers (we're talking politicans and community leaders here) sit in conference rooms, wringing their hands about disengaged youth or the mass exodus of their best and brightest youngsters to larger cities. They put their heads together, consult the experts, and develop an action plan. Except they often miss out on one tiny detail: soliciting input from the young people themselves.
This approach isn't intentionally paternal or condescending; it's just the way many groups operate. But Grand Forks, North Dakota is changing the paradigm, thanks to “Forkin It Over,” a microgrant program created this year by the city's Community Foundation and funded through the Knight Foundation. The program calls for project proposals from local teenagers to make Grand Forks a "friendlier place" for young people, awarding funding to the winning ideas.
What follows is a simple, effective road map whereby local community organizations can engage young people and get them excited about the arts. The "Forkin it Over" program encourages applicants to do the following:
- Identify "issues" that exist between young people and the community. Here's where applicants make their voice heard. Now we don't know for sure what issues, precisely, were raised, but guessing from some of the winners, we can infer that, for example, young people in Grand Forks wanted more live music, bike access, ice skating, and a "portable graffiti wall." (Who doesn't?)
- Propose projects that address aforementioned "issues." Bear in mind, the foundation wasn't soliciting a wish-list from young people. Rather, winning applicants had to show how their proposed project would strengthen ties, cooperation, and interaction between young people and community residents.
- Make the pitch. Each applicant made their pitch to a panel of judges. What's more, they only had 60 seconds in which to do it. All told, 20 individuals or groups made official presentations and 15 ideas received funding, with the Knight Foundation contributing $21,000 to the effort.
- Make them "own" it. It's one thing to tell a young person, "Why, your idea for a story-sharing project between the elderly and millennials is a great one." It's another thing entirely to say, "Your idea is great, here's $1,000, now go make it happen." And that's what this program does. It gives young people ownership of their ideas and helps them see it to fruition.
(The aforementioned story-sharing project, by the way, was proposed by Grand Forker Erin Kunz. Pretty cool stuff.)