According to the latest census information, Payson has approximately 3,000 young people under the age of 18. That's about 22 percent of the population.
This week, I spent some time interviewing a number of teenagers in town and I asked them if they ever thought about what happens in town government. Perhaps the most telling reply came from 16-year-old Anthony Pearce.
"I wish we had a voice in town hall," Pearce said. "Just because we are young doesn't mean we don't have an opinion about what our community needs. Our opinions should count, and we have good ideas."
Another young man said they often feel left out.
"We should have a say in some of the things going on in town, like parks and recreation and other things that affect us," said Aaron Loeffler, 16.
One teen girl said it's frustrating for her when adults act like they know what young people want or need without ever asking.
Another young woman said it's disappointing when adults do things that only give the appearance of youth involvement -- such as surveys, focus groups or committees -- but don't really give the young people autonomy. She said this happens in town government and within the school district and it's insulting.
I walked away from these interviews with the message that many young people in Payson feel shortchanged by the town.
While contemplating their comments, a collective wave of associated guilt rushed over me as I thought about the recent formation of 17 task forces by the town council. I quickly located our archived stories and reviewed the names and missions of each task force. There they were, 17 task forces generated by well-meaning community leaders that covered everything from affordable housing and airport issues, to economic development and water -- all very important topics.
But ultimately, not one of them directly addresses youth issues. I also did not see a single young person assigned to a task force, not even on the parks and recreation committee.
I fear we've sent a demeaning, belittling message -- one that tells our children, "We know better and your ideas don't matter."
I would like to suggest a way to give the youth a voice -- a voice that wasn't always muffled.
After moving to Payson in 1996, I was invited to be an adult adviser on the established "Mayor's Youth Advisory Committee." The committee met monthly with the mayor to address topics important to young people. Adult advisers were not allowed to run the meeting and were, in fact, directed to not do much talking. The youth members assigned a chairperson and they controlled the meetings. The committee was made up of students from elementary, middle and high school. They were allowed to advise the mayor and town staff about concerns, challenges and solutions that affected the youth of Payson.
In our very adult-like way, we put together a long list of committees to address issues we felt were vital to Payson's future, and inadvertently left out 22 percent of the population that is Payson's future.