Samantha Sheffield was meeting with Ima Etim of the Pine Bluff Mayor’s office when Etim received an email from the city government of Forrest City, Ark. Pine Bluff had recently restarted its Mayor’s Youth Council program and the Forrest City representative was looking for help starting their own.
“I thought, ‘Writing a guide that showed how to create a program like that, that would be really cool,’” Sheffield said.
Almost a year later, Sheffield is in the final months of an independent study with the mayor’s office, finishing a visual how-to guide for cities based on the success of the Pine Bluff Mayor’s Youth Council.
The city’s Mayor’s Youth Council program was restarted in the spring of 2019 and is comprised of high school students from the Pine Bluff, Dollarway, and Watson Chapel school districts. Participants in the program must maintain minimum 2.5 grade-point averages, attend City Council meetings, and participate in weekly leadership sessions in City Hall with the team of adult volunteers.
The program provides the city’s youth with an opportunity to be advocates within their community, allowing them to analyze problems and develop solutions on key issues. Although the youth council does not have a policymaking role in city government, the program offers opportunities for students to work on projects that address specific needs in the community and to make recommendations to city leaders.
"Pine Bluff is in a period of what we call, maybe, a renaissance period," Mayor Shirley Washington said to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette upon the announcement of the program. "There's a big comeback here for our city, and the youth have to be a big part of that because everything we do is not just for today or the now, it's for the future. Our youth are smart, they are engaged, and they have good ideas that we need to encourage them to share with us."
A second-year student at the Clinton School, Sheffield connected with the Pine Bluff Mayor’s Office at a school-hosted Partner Fair in March 2019. Her work initially focused on a nonprofit coalition in the mayor’s office before Washington and Etim encouraged her to look at the office’s youth programming.
“I want to work with youth and civic engagement as my career,” said Sheffield, who has professional experience with the C5 Youth Foundation, a youth leadership nonprofit, and through her Capstone project with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Beyond Civility program. “I’m looking more on the educational side, but not directly as an educator. I’m looking at positive youth development and civic engagement programs.”
Sheffield’s work has some precedent at the Clinton School. Amie Alexander, a 2018 graduate, worked in collaboration with the Association of Arkansas Counties to create a toolkit for counties interested in implementing County Youth Councils.
“Amie and I talked about using the information she gathered with what I’ve gathered to put together a more visual guide,” Sheffield said. “She put together a 40-page report that I would like to condense to eight to ten pages. It’s very thorough and it’s very well done. But she and I both thought condensing it would be good for most readers.”
In addition to her work on the guide, Sheffield has worked directly with members of the youth council. She helped lead multiple sessions, including one which taught the group how to communicate with people holding differing viewpoints from their own using exercises modeled from one of her Clinton School courses, Communication Processes and Social (Ex)Change. Additionally, she led the group through the process of planning community events, which involved helping them define their own roles for future projects.
“We really want them to be the ones who work on these projects,” Sheffield said. “That’s a big learning piece. We tried to take the adults out of it to provide a better experiential opportunity.”
Sheffield and the rest of the adult volunteers helped the students improve their research on a few topics they are interested in elevating, including the school-to-prison pipeline, which consisted of a discussion with Clinton School graduate and the State Representative for the students’ district, Vivian Flowers (’07).
“This is important because the youth aren’t always represented well in decision-making bodies,” Sheffield said. “They’re young but they are also the future of the country and their opinions matter. Teaching them and preparing them to be participating citizens is really important.”
The Clinton School Speaker Series not only enhances the education of Clinton School students, but also provides a venue for the public to engage in intellectual discussions on the issues of the day.