“Mayors are figuring out that if you do not have kids at the table … you’re probably not a very good mayor.”

Austin, Tex.—At the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual conference in Boston this past June, Gresham, Oregon Mayor Shane Bemis is the chair of the recently established U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Youth Involvement. In 2018, the task force released a 2018 survey and best practices report “in order to obtain critical information surrounding youth engagement” and “create a baseline of information” on the topic.

Last week at South by Southwest, Bemis spoke about “Mayors, Youth, and the Fate of Cities” (audio available), and then shared his thoughts with Route Fifty on why the Conference of Mayors as a whole, as well as he and his colleagues individually, are increasingly focused on millennials and younger people.

Check out our full interview with Bemis about how city leaders are changing their thinking on how to engage and support children in their communities, what it means in Gresham, and more.

Our key takeaways:

On youth and educational outcomes.

“When we are talking about youth and educational outcomes, a lot of people want to take and lay everything at foundation of the educational process: it’s the school system, it’s the school district. They are responsible for everything. What we are trying to say is that the schools only have the kids for twenty percent of the time. The other 80 percent of the time, who has the kids?”

“We’re giving kids opportunities, we’re giving all kids access, we’re understanding that cities play a big role in the future of our children. That’s been a little bit of a paradigm shift for some mayors, so getting into that space and picking it up has been great for us.”

On the political dynamics and policy insight received.

“[Younger] Republicans and Democrats agree on some of the things that separate so wildly the older people. … So when we talk about climate change, Republicans and Democrats at a younger age agree on that, where they don’t at an older age. We talk about gender, sexuality, all of those sort of things, that’s viewed differently by younger people than it is by older people in terms of parties. If you’re not getting those voices to the table, you’re probably not leading your community very well.”

“For instance, we just did a survey in my home state of Oregon and 2,000 high school students were surveyed: ‘what is the number one thing you need in your … school?’ In my day it probably would have been, you know, more activities, more electives, whatever it might be. In Oregon, out of 2,000 students, the number one need was for more mental health services.”

“Now would we have intuitively gone there as a mayor? Probably not, but when we have that data, and we use it, and we’re getting meaning dialogue from our youth, then we can be better mayors and understand where we pick up the pieces.”

“So I think, again, mayors all across this country are picking up the mantle on that and understanding that in order for them to move their communities forward that needs to be an integral piece of it.”

What that means in Gresham, Oregon

“For our community, we are a suburb of Portland. As Portland has grown and gentrified, a lot of poverty has been shifted into our community so some of the services we didn’t have—and so we’ve had to build those constructs and those service providers in our community. So doing that really makes you think differently. Where we used to lay, again, everything at the school district’s doorstep, now everybody is starting to understand that everybody has a lot larger role to play in that process to get better outcomes for our children.”

Mitch Herckis is the Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Route Fifty.



Connecting state and local government leaders

Austin, Tex. – When many city leaders talk about the about preparing for the (always right around the corner) self-driving vehicle revolution, most are talking about the massive impact on infrastructure and public transit, or the questions that remain about what it will mean for the environment or public safety.

But Rochester Hills, Michigan Mayor Bryan Barnett argues paying attention to the people who are most likely to use these new ways of getting around is just as important.

“There’s all the technical things about getting your community ready with curbs and how your city is laid out from a planning perspective … I’m really passionate about the human aspect,”  Barnett told Route Fifty during South by Southwest earlier this month.

The current vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, hailing from the metro Detroit region, describes the emerging tech as a “real passion” of his. But he also believes the adoption of self-driving vehicles as an opportunity to increase mobility among populations who often have limited options.

“We talk a lot about the last mile with transportation, but most people live 10 years past their ability to drive,” said Barnett, a Republican who has served as mayor since 2006. “What [autonomous vehicles] will do for the disabled community, what it will do for the community that hasn’t had the ability to enjoy vehicles and personal car ownership … there’s a huge social impact I think that we are trying to understand.”

In November, Barnett’s city and AARP held an event to try to familiarize residents with the technology. Barnett believes in focusing on the part of the technology he can best control for his city of 75,000 right now: educating his residents. The idea is that creating acceptance of autonomous vehicle technology, can best position Rochester Hills to become an early adopter.

“You start to have those conversations; they get a little more public and companies start to take a look,” he said. Ultimately, by having residents that are “excited about the concept, not fearful,” Barnett thinks is the best thing he can do to get his city at the forefront of the movement.

He sees it as a real opportunity to provide services that simply do not exist in the region to date.

“We don’t have great public transportation in metro Detroit—probably one of the worst in the nation—so we look at this as maybe a way to bypass the traditional routes of public transportation and introduce public transportation in communities that look like mine: suburban America,” he explained. For a nation where half of the population describes where they live as suburban, the city of Rochester Hills could provide a representation of how America’s suburbs adopt autonomous vehicles once it becomes the norm.

On South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg running for President

“I think people will probably assume that what he lacks is experience based solely on a number associated with his age, but I think actually experience is probably his strength. He has seen in a Midwest city the challenges of recession, he knows how to talk to people in their homes, he understands the challenges many Americans are facing and I think he is going to surprise a lot of people. I was chatting with him yesterday, he’s excited for his big interview later today.”

“I think his experience as a Midwestern mayor is going to surprise a lot of people because that is where many people find themselves in today’s America.”

On Attending Civic I/O, the Mayors Summit at South By Southwest

“If you’re a football fan, this is sort of the NFL Combine time. I think this is sort of like combine for the mayors—I mean, you’re stretched, you’re pushed, you’re challenged, you’re asked to kind of thing about things differently.”

On U.S. Conference of Mayors Priorities: Infrastructure, Inclusion and Innovation

“Those three topics cover, apply and find a home in every city. Coastal cities, Midwestern cities, big cities, small cities. People everywhere are dealing with those three issues … We think we’ve got a winning strategy, it’s resonating in Washington.”

Mitch Herckis is the Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Route Fifty