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Main Spotlight: How to Build a Youth Board

June 13, 2023 | Main Spotlight: How to Build a Youth Board | By: Kathrine Birkbeck at Executive Director of Historic Downtown Clinton in Tennessee | 
 Students present their ideas for a downtown art project. Photo courtesy of Historic Downtown Clinton.

Main Takeaways:


1. Young people are interested in our work, but need help finding ways to get involved.
2. Partner with a respected teacher to lead the club within the high school.
3. Find students who are passionate about their town and help grow that passion.
4. Let students pick projects that interest them and help them build a Main Street that meets their needs.
Last year, our local Education Foundation asked me to speak at a teacher training program. I was tasked with talking to teachers about getting their kids involved in the community, so I jumped at the chance to get in front of some new faces. At the end of the session, one of the teachers raised her hand and said, “you make it sound like you benefit so greatly from having kids involved in your downtown instead of it being something that just the kids or school benefits from.” I looked at her in the sincerest way that I knew possible and simply said, “well, yes…I 100% believe that."
Shortly after that experience, a go-getter Junior walked right up to me at one of our events and told me she wanted to be my intern. She came with some big plans. When I sat down to ask her what high school students thought about the downtown area, she told me about how pretty they all thought it was and that they love to come take photos there, but that they didn’t feel like the downtown had a lot to offer them. So, we decided to gather some true numbers on that. She and I created a survey that asked students what they thought and what they would like to see. 
Surprisingly, we learned that there were a lot of students interested in the history of our unique small town. They were interested in our revitalization efforts, ways they could help, passing our history on to the next generation, and more. Realizing this changed our program for the better in many ways. We didn’t just want these kids to give us a few ideas, we wanted these kids to continuously be the ideas that fueled us. In a lot of ways, they were the missing piece – the voice of the next generation. This is why we formed our Historic Downtown Clinton Youth Board. In our first year, we had 18 engaging students ready to take on the needs of the community. 

Find the Right Teacher to Partner With

We all know that teachers don’t get paid enough, but most of them do their job because they are passionate about the kids and care about seeing them grow to their biggest and best potential! Finding a teacher that fits these criteria wasn’t hard for us at all. When we asked Christa Frost, business teacher and Future Business Leaders of America Advisor, she probably didn’t have the time to take this on, but she made the time because she believed in it wholeheartedly. She cared that we were giving students an opportunity unlike any other currently in the school and she recruited students that would make an impact. This step can absolutely cause you to sink or swim. She made countless school announcements and flyers and went to students individually to tell them that this was something worth doing. High School students are insanely busy, but if a respectable teacher tells them this is worth their time and they listen, something really beautiful happens.
Christa Frost speaking about the importance of the program.
If you find a teacher that helps you plant those seeds and those students do become active in the community as adults, your Main Street program flourishes way beyond the life you give it today. Our Main Street programs outlive us and work well beyond the people who formed them.

Find the Right Students

I’d like to believe that every kid that grows up in a small town has a community pride unmatched by those that grow up in a big city, and they graduate from high school to go out into the world to tell those they meet about the amazing history their town uses as their brand. But alas, not all of them do. However, in our first meeting with those that showed up, we asked each of them why they walked in the door and said 'yes' to being part of this board. I wish I would’ve recorded their answers! They talked about how important it was that they grew up and went to Clinton High School, which was one of the first schools in the state of Tennessee to desegregate, and the role that plays in our history. They talked about making Clinton a place they want to come back to and that kids younger than them would be proud of. Those kids that care – they are out there.  They just need someone to give them the energy to use their passions.

Find the Right Projects

Clinton High School is a newly designated STEM school, so I went in thinking I would grab their attention with things that might interest them like putting together a podcast or developing an app for our Walking Tour. While those are still things we might one day achieve, this particular group of students found a March Madness contest that we could enter to try to win $5,000 to go toward a project of our choosing. As we laid out some ideas, the one that stuck was planting trees and doing an art installation for a kid-friendly, historical story in a city owned but underutilized area by the public library. The students filmed a video and promoted it so well that after 49 other teams were eliminated, we were left standing to win! I don’t believe we could have done this if we had picked a project that they weren’t fully invested in. 
The process got the entire community involved, and then we had a 6th grade class reach out to us to help us research the materials and artists for the art installation. This class did a science project as well as research that they presented to our high schoolers and our board of directors. When the trees and the art installation are installed, all these students will have something in their community that will last for years and years to come as it teaches new generations history and inspires the actions of even more youth to get involved. I can’t imagine a better outcome in our first year.
In our first year with a Youth Board, I’ve learned so much more than I ever could have taught the high schoolers who we worked with. In a lot of ways, they are just like the volunteers we look to recruit or the businesses we try to help – they just want to be a part of something great and they want to feel valued and heard. When our youth come to us and tell us that’s what they want, it's easy to provide that opportunity for them. And the benefits we get back as a Main Street program are beyond anything we could ever measure.
SnowShoe, a Main Street America Allied Member, is this quarter's Main Spotlight advertiser. For more information about what they do to support Main Street organizations, click here: