By Hannah Esqueda
Photo by Crystal Rivera
Merced, Calif.–Seated behind the large wooden dais at the front of Merced’s City Council chambers, six smiling teens are helping to change the face of local government.
The young adults are part of the city’s Youth Council, a formal body serving as liaison between Merced’s sizable youth population and local government officials. Unlike its adult counterpart the Youth Council body is a true reflection of the community’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity.
Shades of black, brown, yellow and white all make an appearance, with name plaques proudly designating space for council members like Guadalupe Aleman, Kaeyden Lor and Nicholas Sizemore. Each member is given equal respect and a platform for their individual voice, while collectively they represent the city’s youthful future.
“I think it’s really good to have diversity on the council,” said Alex Salas, chairman of the Youth Council. “It definitely builds a bridge in race and culture for our community. We get to see that we’re all here for one common goal.”
Established in 2014, the council was not immediately so diverse. Over time though Salas said he watched the group grow more reflective of the larger community and take on more responsibility for the youth population. The 18-year-old was appointed to the council after his second application attempt and has served on the body since last school year.
“I’m thinking of bringing up the issue of diversity again this year, just so we stay focused on keeping this diverse and getting multiple perspectives on each issue,” he said.
Merced’s Youth Council is also committed to helping break down traditional gender barriers. Half of all the current members are young women.
For Aleman the equal representation of young women is a crucial detail that helps set the program apart from other branches of local government. At present, all six members of Merced’s traditional city council are male, and each live on the north side of town.
“Many city councils, and really any branch of government, is dominated by men. Seeing that the Youth Council has many girl members teaches young girls that it is possible for them to go into fields that are dominated by men,” Aleman said. “We’re just as smart and resourceful as any man.”
Currently, the Youth Council is comprised of three young women and three young men. A seventh member is expected to be appointed soon, and members Helen Chavez and Cynthia Ratzlaff said they are encouraging all interested youth to apply, regardless of gender.
“We want it to be diverse but I think it should really be for whoever is interested,” Chavez said.
Ratzlaff agreed but said lately a majority of applicants have been young women. “For some reason we’ve just been getting a lot of girls.”
Ratzlaff and Chavez are cousins who previously helped campaign for the creation of districts for Merced’s City Council. It was during one of those community forums that the two first heard about the Youth Council.
“We saw a member at an event and it just seemed like a great way to get involved,” Ratzlaff said.
Chavez agreed and said she hopes to use her time on the council to address key issues affecting Merced’s youth.
“I hear from a lot of kids that there’s not enough crosswalks so they don’t feel their neighborhoods are safe. Also they complain that there’s nothing to do,” she said. “Even after I graduate I think this is something I would like to keep following up on.”
Such safety complaints are all too common among the city’s young adults and Ratzlaff said she’s hopeful the Youth Council will be able to make a real change going forward.
“Our plan is to start off small this year and get the high school-aged kids involved in different activities,” she said.
A community cleanup day is being planned for early October and will likely focus on a neighborhood on Merced’s southside. The area has long been associated with gang activity and teen residents say there aren’t many opportunities for them there.
“There’s a lot of different things I want us to look at this fiscal year. I don’t feel like any one issue is bigger than the other because they all need to be dealt with and I’m hoping we can knock them out one by one,” Salas said.
Perhaps most importantly, the Youth Council provides Merced’s teens with an opportunity to represent their fellow youth. By building up their leadership skills, the program is empowering many to consider how they’ll wield that voice in the future.
“I do want to stay involved in local government but I’m graduating this year and I want to get a degree in some kind of computer engineering so I don’t know if I’d have much time for it,” Aleman said. “I think I’d be able to do enough simply by voting because our voice matters and it is our votes that lead to change in our towns.”
Other council members say they’re looking forward to participating in a more direct way. Ratzlaff and Chavez are each planning to continue campaigning for various community issues, while Salas admitted he’s already begun investigating how to start a political career.
“It has made me curious. I want to take a leadership role in the community,” he said. “The other day I was curious about how you even get started [with that career] and I was even Googling ‘how can somebody run for governor?’ I want to see how far up the ladder I can go.”