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California City Solutions: Saratoga Uses Pizza and Politics to Engage Youth in Government

April 4, 2014
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries. These entries are also now available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California City Solutions. Saratoga’s Pizza and Politics for Youth in City Government program was submitted in 2013 for the Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government award category.
 
The Saratoga Youth Commission decided to tackle the nationally-recognized problem of political apathy among teens before the November 2012 election by creating a politically informative event attractive to their peers. The commission, which comprises high school-aged residents selected by the Saratoga city council, took to heart research conducted in 2011 by a Northern California high school journalist that found that just one third of his classmates could name the current Governor.
 
The youth were familiar with the local League of Women Voters’ political forums for candidates running for city-wide and regional races but understood how these events held no appeal to younger citizens. These forums typically focused issues of interest to adults (e.g., tax policies) and offered little opportunity for audience interaction. A youth forum would provide an opportunity for teens to learn about local, state, and maybe even national candidates or representatives, all discussing issues pertinent to the next generation.
 
Although most of their classmates would not be eligible to vote in November 2012, the commissioners felt that peers could have an impact in other ways, such as volunteering on campaigns, communicating through social media and even influencing their parents, siblings, older friends, neighbors or anyone of voting age.
 
Organizing an event for teenagers is no easy task. The commissioners partnered with the neighboring Cupertino Teen Commission to expand their outreach, doubling the targeted audience. It quickly became obvious to the organizers that they needed a hook to attract their peers. Pizza and extra credit at school emerged as logical choices. Called “Pizza and Politics: A Political Forum for Teens,” the free event was held at the Cupertino Community Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 — less than two weeks before Election Day.
 
The political forum was split into three sections: three candidates in a race for two seats on the Cupertino Union School Board; two candidates running for the 22nd District of the California State Assembly; and, as stand-ins for the two major presidential candidates, a debate between two partisan elected officials — the mayors of Saratoga (a Republican) and Campbell (a Democrat, who was 29 years old). The Saratoga city clerk, who was also 29 at the time, served as moderator.
 
The teen commissioners conducted outreach to the candidates, organized the event’s agenda and created a marketing plan that included a Facebook event page, a 40-second commercial airing on YouTube, and presentations in their government and history classes.
 
As the event neared, there was a potential problem on the horizon. Already facing an uphill battle in trying to attract teens to the event, the San Francisco Giants were scheduled to play the first game of the World Series on the night of the political forum, with the first pitch to be thrown five minutes after the start. Given the conflict, the commissions, which originally hoped for 100 attendees, agreed that 50 attendees would be considered a success. More than 90 of the 125 people who came to the pizza and politics events were teens.
 
The forum also aired live on the Cupertino community access channel. Candidates introduced themselves and were asked a series of questions by the moderator, and later  the audience. Commissioners ushered microphones back and forth between members of the audience (giving preference to teens).
 
Questions ranged from why a candidate was a member of a particular political party to providing solutions in alleviating the ongoing fee increases at California’s public universities.
 
The press, including Saratoga News, Cupertino Courier, and digital news outlets Saratoga Patch and Cupertino Patch, covered the forum. The telecast was later rebroadcasted to Cupertino residents and Saratoga’s community access channel. The footage was uploaded to YouTube for the rest of the community to view before they went to the polls.
 
The two commissions worked together successfully in organizing and executing an event that comprised of five candidates, two mayors, a moderator and a television crew. As a result of its success, the city of Cupertino had expressed interest in offering a similar forum for its city council race. The two commissions are discussing organizing another forum for the 2014 mid-term election.
 
Although the forum may have only reached a modest number of teenagers in a local area, it demonstrated that events organized for and by teens can have a positive impact. It is important for teens to learn more about the policies being made locally and statewide so that they can create a united voice and make a difference in the community.


 
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