Fresno Youth Commission Addresses Key Issues

The City of Fresno won the Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government for this project in the 2018 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit

To give its young residents a voice in the local policymaking process, the Fresno City Council created the City of Fresno Youth Commission in April 2016. Two youth commissioners represent the mayor’s office and each of Fresno’s seven council districts for a total of 16 commissioners, ages 16–21. Fresno partnered with the Youth Leadership Institute to lead the youth commission’s facilitation. Since the commission’s creation, the Youth Leadership Institute has equipped the youth commissioners with the tools necessary to succeed in their advisory role.

“The youth commission’s goal is to bring our young people to the decisionmaking table, where they can work to create positive change in our city,” says Council Member Esmeralda Soria.

The youth commission identified the need for jobs as the top issue for young people in Fresno. The commissioners presented the findings of their intensive research to the city council and proposed an allocation of $50,000 in city funds to cover 30 paid internships in local government for youth ages 16–21. The council unanimously approved the proposal, and the city opened youth positions throughout its departments. Over 1,250 youths submitted applications, underscoring the need for youth jobs in Fresno.

“The voices of our youth are critically important, especially on issues that impact them,” says José Espinoza, program coordinator for the youth commission.

Tragedy Spurs a Change

The community suffered a tragic loss in April 2017 when Youth Commissioner Neng Thao drowned in the swift waters of the San Joaquin River. Thao, who was passionate about his Hmong community, would have graduated a few weeks later as class valedictorian for Edison High School.

Recognizing that young Fresno residents drown in nearby rivers every year because they can’t swim, Mayor Lee Brand called upon the youth commission to raise $30,000 to fund 750 free swimming lessons for youth throughout Fresno. The youth commission partnered with the Fresno Parks and Recreation Department to help promote the free swimming lessons. Schools in the Fresno Unified and Central Unified School districts opened their pools and provided swimming lessons throughout summer 2017. Then-Council President Soria donated an additional 30 scholarships for swimming lessons.

Grant Programs, Initiatives and More

In fall 2017, City Council Member Luis Chavez offered his district’s youth commissioners $5,000 to create a grant program for youth-serving organizations within District 5. The youth commissioners created the application, interviewed the organizations and selected the winners. One of the organizations they selected was the Enclothed Cognition Project, which focuses on the impact of clothing on psychological processes and behavior. The youth commissioners also selected the Fresno Youth Getting Out Project for funding. The project focuses on 12 youths from single-parent homes who have limited opportunities to participate in outings and takes them to destinations such as Yosemite National Park, the Museum of Tolerance and college basketball games.

In March 2018, then-Council President Soria championed the Youth Jobs Task Force Resolution created by the youth commission. The task force, which includes representatives of public agencies and private businesses along with youth, is charged with developing a long-term solution to the need for youth jobs. It will be conducting research and examining potential funding and new job sectors for youth. The task force will present its proposal in summer 2019. Creating youth jobs helps prevent young people from joining gangs, gives them an opportunity to earn money that ultimately supports the local economy and provides skills and experience.

A Valuable Community Resource

The youth commission accomplished a significant amount of work in its first three years. The commissioners have served diligently, representing the concerns of their peers before the city council and crafting equitable, sustainable solutions. They exemplify leadership today, and their contributions demonstrate the value of youth as a community resource.

Contact: José Espinoza, program coordinator, Youth Leadership Institute; phone: (559) 492-9501; email:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the League of California Cities and the City of Fresno

This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Western City

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