What Fairfield Gets Right - Making Young People’s Voices Heard

What Fairfield Gets Right - Making Young People’s Voices Heard

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Above: Fairfield resident Eric Cortes is a member of the city's Youth Commission and says issues including safety, transportation and after school activities top the list of concerns among area youth. 

Many people in the Bay Area might not know how important politics are in the city of Fairfield. Fairfield is very diverse, and with that diversity comes many different voices, including those of young people. Young people are a huge part of what shapes Fairfield’s identity, and I think that part of what makes Fairfield unique is that our city officials are so willing to hear what young people have to say.

I’m currently an Eagle Scout and have been involved in scouting since I was 10 years old. I got to meet Mayor Harry Price at my Cub Scout Blue and Gold Dinner in 2011, and he told me about the City of Fairfield Youth Commission. This sparked my interest because I wanted to get involved in local government; at the time, though, I was too young to be on the commission. In the meantime, I was accepted at the Fairfield-Suisun Public Safety Academy as a fifth grader in its inaugural year, 2012. The school, which is a paramilitary academy, heightened my interest in politics as I learned more about our country’s history and had public speaking opportunities. I finally got to be part of the Youth Commission when I was in seventh grade.

The commission, which is made up of 15 residents between the ages of 12 and 21, is an advisory body to the Fairfield City Council. The commission creates opportunities for young people to get involved in local government and weighs in on city policies related to youth. Youth who want to be on the commission go through an application process for appointment to a two-year term. The commission meets on the first Monday of every month at the Fairfield City Council Chambers, and all of the Commission’s meetings are open to the public.

The main duty of a youth commissioner is to represent all of the youth in the city of Fairfield. Another important duty is to carry out our bi-annual Youth Needs Assessment. This project mainly consists of three parts. First, each commissioner holds a focus group with 10 to 12 young Fairfield residents who don’t know each other. The main idea is to create a comfortable, open environment in which youth will be able to let the commissioners know how they feel about life in Fairfield. Using the feedback from the focus groups, the commission creates survey questions, and then the survey is distributed to a larger group of Fairfield young people. The results are compiled and the commission moves on to forming sub-committees that will best address the needs of youth according to the survey findings.

I am close to the middle of my second term on the commission and I’m its current chairperson. I am proud of our most recent survey because we were able to reach out to so many students in Fairfield. We spoke to young people from about 12 different middle schools and high schools. In all, each commissioner distributed about 350 surveys, and we collected input from more than 5,000 students total.

While the assessment was a success, in the process of conducting it we learned some things that were troubling. For example, nearly 60 percent of students said that they’re concerned about violence and safety. Plus, more than half of students said they regularly see “destructive or dehumanizing language used towards others.” One in three students reported having easy access to drugs or alcohol. Not to mention, one in five students said they’d been exposed to guns, negative views of women, or “destructive family or neighborhood environments.”

One comment we saw repeatedly was that Fairfield is “the same as everywhere else, both nice and bad” but that “it all depends on what area you live in.” When asked if existing programs and opportunities in Fairfield are meeting their needs, only about a third said “yes” or “mostly.” Most young people answered “somewhat.”

There were also some interesting details about participating in extracurricular activities, either at school or outside school. About 25 percent of students said that transportation is an issue for them when it comes to participating, and more than half of students said that whether or not transportation is available will impact whether they participate in an activity. And 70 percent said that the cost of an activity will impact whether or not they can be a part of it. In terms of the programs themselves, almost half of the students surveyed said they wanted to participate in job training programs or career planning. Almost half said they just wanted a dedicated place to hang out with friends and meet new people. Many students made comments to the effect of, “There are many opportunities for average activities, but nothing interesting.”

We wanted to take action on the findings about young people being concerned about violence and safety. We started promoting the Alive and Free program at the Fairfield Police Activities League Center/Matt Garcia Center, which we think does a great job of helping teens learn how to avoid violence, and we held an activity in February where Fairfield police officers and young people could get to know each other. The Commission also began the Youth Friendly Business Awards, which rewarded businesses that give jobs to teens.

There are so many amazing things about Fairfield that people in the wider community don’t know about. I think that as a city we need to be better communicators about ourselves. In the future, I see myself as a political figure in my city. Whether it's being on the city council, or becoming a congressperson, or maybe even the President, I want to advocate for my hometown. For the time being, I know that no one makes a greater impact on a city than the people who live in it – so I’m going to do everything I can to make Fairfield a great place.

This is part of a special series, Youth Voices Beyond the Bay, exploring the stories of young people growing up on the far reaches of the Bay Area. Click here to read more stories from the series.