DeWarren Langley, a 19-year-old graduate of Jordan High School, has spent the last four years trying to create the Durham Youth Commission, an idea based on similar commissions set up in a number of cities around the country, including Hampton, Va., Dallas, Atlanta and Washington.
"Within the context of government services, youth tend to be viewed as problems in need of solutions rather than resources and potential capable of translating concerns into policy," says Langley, who is now a sophomore at Hampton University.
Langley helped start Teenagers Politically Active four years ago. The organization was a nonprofit that strove to get young people interested in civic activities and educate them on the local political process. Teenagers Politically Active is not around anymore, but before the organization dissolved, Langley started work planning the Durham Youth Commission.
Its role would be to "assist and advise the Durham City Council, the Board of County Commissioners and the DPS Board of Education in addressing youth issues." It would be comprised of 30 young people, each between the ages of 11 and 18, who would help local politicians make decisions with the concerns of young people in mind.
So far, the idea has the unanimous support of the Durham City Council and the Durham School Board. Langley and those who back the commission hope it can be a very effective tool in helping to counter some of the most serious problems that kids face. Foremost among these problems is gang violence, which isn't likely to be fixed without the serious input of those who encounter this problem the most--kids.
But so far, the commission can't find the support it was promised to get off the ground.
With an extensive plan for the commission submitted, the Durham City Council passed a resolution in September 2002 that declared that the City of Durham would create and maintain a youth commission "that consists of youth relevant to the population of the youth." In February 2003 that resolution was amended and the council decided the costs of the commission would be divided by the city and county governments.
But for about a year after that, nothing happened. Langley went off to college but promised to return to Durham to see the commission kick off, as it should have done the year before.
At a meeting set up upon his return at the end of June this year, Deputy County Manager Wendell Davis presented Langley with the estimated costs of the Youth Commission. Including the salary of a Youth Service Coordinator, operational costs and contractual services, the estimate of annual cost came out at just over $82,000.
The City Council had already allocated their half of the money for the commission. But the night before Langley's meeting with the deputy county manager, the Board of County Commissioners adopted their budget without including funds for the Youth Commission.
"We did not fund the proposal in this year's budget because we did not discuss it prior to the budget being approved," says Ellen Reckhow, chair of the Board of County Commissioners. "The first time we discussed it was at a joint city/county meeting in July. The Board of County Commissioners considered it for the first time [Aug. 2]."
But if you go downtown to the Clerk of the Board's office, you'll find minutes of joint city/county meetings dating all the way back to Jan. 13, when the Youth Commission is discussed in depth. These meetings, one in January, one in March and one in May, focused on getting a source of input from youth regarding the Youth Commission.
When asked about these meetings, Reckhow said, "While the City/County Committee has discussed the proposal, the Board of County Commissioners did not discuss it til August."
The minutes from the City Council meeting in May contain instructions for Darrel Crittendon, head of Durham Parks and Recreation, to have the Youth Council operational by September of this year. But judging by the amount of progress being made in regard to researching and developing the council, this isn't likely to happen.
Langley thinks this process is taking too long. "The delay in the establishment of an independent-influential youth council in Durham is a direct result of some local elected representatives' conventional view of addressing challenging issues. The questions that continue to arise in relation to the youth council were answered two years ago, yet the youth council has not been established."
Despite the slow pace of progress in establishing the Youth Council, interest in it is still strong. Newly elected School Board member Steve Schewel has come out in support of it as a good way to represent youth. "I think a youth commission made up of young people in our community contributing their ideas about how to improve the lives of Durham's youth is a good idea," he says. "I think these voices need to be heard by people in government, and the commission strikes me as a good way to do that in an organized fashion."
Support is also coming from a national level. Alex Koroknay-Palicz, president and executive director of the National Youth Rights Association in Washington, D.C., is another one of those speaking out in support of creating the Durham Youth Commission.
"I think it's a great step forward," he says. "There is much more that needs doing, but the commission is a good idea."