December 26, 2021
Written By: Michelle Pawelski
Local teens are making their voices heard throughout the city and paving the way for their peers across the region to do the same. The Rapid City Youth City Council was formed two years ago with a mission of bridging the gap between public officials and the city's youth and offering young people a way to be heard in local government decision-making.
The effort has paid off.
The youth council was able to add a new perspective to some of the city's most significant issues, including the controversial mask mandate and the Indian Boarding School land swap.
"We have put the youth voice in city government and sparked civil engagement," said Sadie Colbeck, a senior at Stevens High School and the current council chairperson. "We've taken on the hot topics."
Sadie recalled their December 2020 meeting when the youth, dressed in Santa hats and reindeer antlers, had a healthy discourse over the mask mandate. "We had a very respectful debate. Even if we didn't have the same views, we still respected each other as a person."
And that is what Sadie said the council is all about.
"The entire point of Rapid City Youth City Council was to spark civil engagement respectfully, and that is exactly what we did at that meeting."
Several years ago, Hannah Churchill, now a freshman at Augustana University, and two of her peers worked to start a council. "Youth are coming into adulthood where they will be voting and making decisions," said Hannah while attending the council meeting on her holiday break. "It is important for youth to get involved and understand what is going on in government, especially at the city level."
The initial proposal submitted did not go far, but that did not discourage the teens. Sean Binder, teacher, advisor, and internship coordinator at Rapid City High School helped improve their proposal. The resubmitted proposal was immediately approved. Sean had previously worked in Colorado helping communities start youth city councils.
Youth City Council membership includes a diverse representation of cultures, backgrounds, and opinions from all schools, including private, public, and homeschool.
In addition to learning about local government, Tae Swanson, a Stevens High School senior and council secretary, said she has been opened to the diverse thinking of her peers. "I have gained a lot of insight into what others think about certain issues. It has helped me take a step back and look at things from a 3-D perspective rather than just my experiences on the issues," she said.
Tae also believes the youth council has broadened the minds of the community's adults. "Once adults start talking to youth, they realize there is a lot to be said from the youth population about stuff that impacts us directly." With the melting pot of different ideas and opinions from the schools, city officials can gather a general consensus of younger people to make more well-rounded decisions, she said.
In addition to the general city council, the council has created subcommittees to focus on larger issues affecting the city. These topics include mental health, community relations, environment, and the newly formed economics committee, which Sadie proposed.
The construction of the Amazon building in Sioux Falls spurred the idea. Sadie and her dad were talking about the jobs created from that development. It brought about the conversation of working with Rapid City's business community to inform teens about the career opportunities available here.
"A lot of people I know are going to different colleges, and that is amazing," Sadie said. "I want to make sure they come back as well. I am interested in different universities, but I want to come back and know that I can still come home once I get my degree. There will be different job opportunities for me here."
It hasn't always been easy to get city officials to listen and understand the youth's perspective. Still, the youth council is happy to have a place to express their thoughts and overall feel supported.
"We have been so blessed that the common council and the adults in our city have been so receptive to our thoughts and ideas," Sadie said. "There has been some push back, but sometimes debate is what is needed to make great decisions."
Kiran Kelly is a senior at Central High School and vice chairperson. She added that the youth council has made teens feel like they are being heard. "We are trying to make changes in ways a lot of people don't recognize. It is easier for us to be open and talk about it when we have a platform."
Rapid City was the first community in South Dakota to have a youth city council and is now becoming the model for cities across the state and the region.
"It is exciting to be a part of something like this and realize you are having people reach out to you and ask for your guidance," Kiran said. So far, Rapid City youth have provided feedback to officials in Sioux Falls, Hot Springs, and Casper, WY, and hope that only increases. They also hope to get more teens involved locally. "We talked about wanting to make sure the youth city council stays for as long as possible and that our vision for civic engagement continues," Sadie said. She also hopes representation across Rapid City schools increases. "When it comes to our selection committee, we need to make sure there is as much diversity as possible. We need to have as many voices in the conversation."
Many teens initially joined because of their interest in government and civics. Still, the youth have gained a much broader benefit they will take with them long after their tenure is over.
For example, Sadie now intends to be mayor of Rapid City, a goal she made after serving on the council. While she always saw herself as a leader, she didn't see it as a government role. "The youth city council was my first step, and now there is no way I am not going to be mayor."
She loves Rapid City and intends to do everything she can to be a voice for the betterment of her community. "The city has many amenities, including great businesses and spectacular views. However, the people make it unique from other areas," she described. "It is the people who run it; people who participate, and express their opinions, who try to make the community a better place by attending common council and youth city council meetings. Those are the people who make the city go and sometimes are forgotten, and those are the people you should meet as you walk down the street."
That includes the youth who are raising their voices and bringing positive change to their community.
The Rapid City Youth City Council meets the second Tuesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall and is open to everyone.