Getting metro Detroit millennials ‘on board’ and into leadership positions in local government

By, Allie Semperger
Published April 2015: Metromode

We all have the power to influence our communities, and millennials know this better than anyone. Using technology as a platform for change, millennials regularly connect and collaborate with each other to advocate for their favorite causes—from using social networks to raise awareness to collecting signatures for online petitions.

Evan Major (David Lewinski Photography)

Yet only 6 percent of board and commission members in metro Detroit are young people (ages 18-35), despite the fact that millennials account for 29 percent of registered voters in the region.

So how can millennials become more involved in leadership roles in local government in metro Detroit?

A few determined young leaders have some ideas.

Getting millennials ‘On Board’

Hayley Roberts, 30, is working hard to develop and promote On Board, a website and database of centralized information about boards and commissions that residents can visit to learn more and get involved.

As communications director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance (an organization that will soon become Metro Matters), Roberts has worked closely with metro Detroit communities over the past five years and understands the challenges of engaging residents, especially young people. She believes that On Board tackles these challenges by advancing the culture of opportunity in the area and helping local governments take the initiative to reach more residents.

“We were very intentional about creating On Board along with city staffers [and] taking their input,” Roberts says. “I think this teamwork approach could help cities feel more comfortable and more apt to adopt new tools.”

Bringing local government online is essential for getting young people involved. In addition to giving millennials an easy way to access information about boards and commissions, On Board also simplifies the application process. The platform allows residents to apply directly for positions online, a convenience that will be especially appreciated by millennials, but will also benefit people of all ages looking to participate in civic life in their communities.

Hayley Roberts (David Lewinski Photography)

Roberts also encourages young people to view boards as gateway opportunities.

“Not only do boards and commissions possess significant power within a community, they can also prepare a young person to go for a city council seat, a county commission seat, and beyond,” she says.

So far, Ferndale, Washtenaw County, and Ypsilanti are all On Board participants. The Knight Foundation provided support to build out the site’s features and functionality, but additional donations are needed from the local community so the site can continue to expand its reach, helping democratize local government one city at a time. Donations can be made to an Indiegogo campaign, which supports a multi-pronged approach to raising awareness about On Board in local communities.

Many cities struggle with a lack of funding and resources that can prevent the implementation of modern technology—but that doesn’t mean the response to On Board has been any less enthusiastic. City clerks from around metro Detroit and other places in Michigan have called asking when On Board will be available for their use. “It reinforces that local governments want to be more efficient and open, and when given the right tools they will absolutely jump at the chance to use them,” Roberts says.

Collaborating with the community

Evan Major, 32, serves as the vice president of the Hamtramck Board of Education. Because of his extensive experience working with youth in both Hamtramck and Detroit, Major was appointed to fill a partial term vacancy on the board in 2014. He then ran for the office and was successfully elected to serve a six-year term as vice president.

“Without question, my most rewarding experiences are the opportunities to spend time with our students, staff, and families,” he says.

Major’s main duties involve working with the other board members and the community to shape the vision and goals of the Hamtramck Public Schools. The board also works closely with the administration to make important decisions regarding the financial and academic health of the schools. In addition, Major and his fellow board members provide vital information about Hamtramck Public Schools to the community and encourage students and families to participate and share their views.

Evan Major (David Lewinski Photography)

Sometimes young people hesitate to lead and struggle to believe that they can make a significant difference in their community. Major views the situation two ways. Practically, he believes that there should be thoughtful succession planning, meaning that “there must be a constant pipeline of training and opportunities for everyone to realize their leadership potential” in order for organizations to evolve effectively.

On the other side, Major takes a more philosophical approach, especially when considering the great inequality in which power is distributed in the world. He raises questions about whether buying into the glorified notion of the individual is really the best way to make an impact.

“We can succumb to the rugged individualism that runs rampant throughout our culture and tacitly support the status-quo with its shadow cast of puppeteers, or we can work towards the vision that many other leaders and many other societies have advanced to solve problems without prejudice to the possibility of failure and see our futures as intrinsically linked,” he says.

Planning for the Future

Andy Wakeland, 31, is a civil engineer and the chair of the Madison Heights Planning Commission. His involvement with the city of Madison Heights began when he enlisted them to join the Millennial Mayors Congress. Wakeland subsequently applied for the position of millennial representative.

“I attended City Council meetings as regularly as I could to get the pulse of the community and to get to know the elected officials,” he says. “It was a great learning experience.”

Andy Wakeland (David Lewinski Photography)

After serving on several other boards and commissions, Wakeland got the chance to serve on the Madison Heights Planning Commission, and when the chair of the commission stepped down, he was elected. As chair, Wakeland runs the meetings in addition to having the normal responsibilities of a board member.

The Commission sets policies and reviews the master plan of the city every five years. “This makes the Planning Commission review what we want the future of the city to look like and make sure that it is still meeting the current trends and future forecast of development,” he says.

Wakeland is passionate about creating recreation opportunities and engaging young people in the community. His dream for Madison Heights is to develop a large network of walking and biking trails in the city.

“Through the Planning Commission and city government, I hope to one day push this agenda, if the community will support it, to keep young people coming into the city, and making it a home,” Wakeland says.

For other young people interested in leadership opportunities, Wakeland advises getting involved with a cause they have a passion for—from leading at churches and alma maters to launching a local initiative and serving on a board. He says that sometimes getting started is the most difficult part of making a difference.

“Everyone is a person just like you—it would surprise you how small the world is and how we all have similar experiences,” Wakeland says. “In local government, you really can make a difference with as little as one voice.”

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