- February 16, 2015
In this year’s City Commission election, a frequently discussed topic posed a question to the candidates: How can Sarasota better connect to its younger residents?
Most answers focused on the same line of thinking. Elected officials needed to make a more concerted effort to address things young adults care about, particularly good jobs and affordable housing. And young people needed to hold those officials accountable.
Like much said in the heat of a political campaign, it’s easy to be cynical about the prospect of meaningful change actually coming to fruition.
Especially when, according to an SRQ Magazine analysis, voters under 40 cast 8.7% of the ballots. The number of under-40 voters is barely over half the total votes cast by residents 80 and older. Proportionally, voter turnout was higher for residents over the age of 100 than it was for voters aged 20 to 29. If younger adults weren’t coming out to vote, would all that rhetoric quickly fizzle out?
Not if members of Sarasota’s Young Professionals Group get their way.
At the end of May, representatives from the Young Professionals Group had a 90-minute meeting with City Manager Tom Barwin. The conversation focused on some of the same high-profile youth-related issues that came up on the campaign trail, but it had another wrinkle: These young people wanted to learn more about how local government actually worked.
The group, a part of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t want to just advocate for the interests of under-40s in Sarasota. It wants to make sure its members are equipped to navigate the intricacies of city and county government, said Mimi Cirbusova, the chamber’s Young Professionals Group coordinator.
She said it’s common for younger people to assume elected officials have no interest in advocating for them.
“Part of that cynicism comes from a lack of knowing — how do all these big parts of our municipal government work together?” Cirbusova said. “You don’t know what you don’t know, so YPG’s trying to fill that void a little bit.”
“What I’m starting to realize is no matter what, across all demographics, we’re all having the same conversation about the same topics — just not with each other.” — Jaime Minton
The face-to-face with Barwin came together after he spoke on the same panel as Jamie Minton, the group’s government issues chair, in April. That event, hosted by the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association, focused on optimal aging; Minton appeared to speak about millennial issues.
Although the event largely focused on older residents, Minton appreciated the effort to present a diverse set of perspectives. And she learned the issues Sarasota residents are facing don’t change as much as you might think across age groups.
“What I’m starting to realize is no matter what, across all demographics, including age demographics, we’re all having the same conversation about the same topics — just not with each other,” Minton said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I was asked to speak, so the millennial voice could start being included.”
When she broached the subject of having a meeting with Barwin, the city manager was game. City officials want to be clear: Young people’s input is valued.
Barwin acknowledged that the young professionals didn’t exactly come in with the perception that the city was eager to engage with them.
“They were mildly surprised that this was the city’s position,” he said. “My impression of their takeaway was, ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on here. We didn’t know that, and we’re pleasantly surprised people would welcome our participation.’”
The young professionals had an opportunity to discuss what they see as barriers to getting involved in local government. If you’re focused on making career advancements or getting your family started, you don’t have much time to appear at afternoon commission meetings, Minton said. She wanted to find a way to meet in the middle — to ensure that if young residents were willing to put in the work, government officials would find a way to make sure their opinions are taken into consideration. Young people don’t want to be the center of attention; they just want a seat at the table and the knowledge of how to play the game.
“We want to ask the generations above us to lend us their wisdom and expertise, so once they’re done doing what they’re doing, we can pick up and don’t have to start from scratch,” Minton said.
The meeting with Barwin was just one step toward making that happen. The Young Professionals Group is working with county staff to set up a recurring series of meetings highlighting how local government can influence the issues the association’s members care most about, according to a recent survey. The group also plans to circulate a list of advisory board vacancies, which is one way Barwin said young people could get more directly involved.
Getting to a legitimate position of influence is still a work in progress. Barwin is optimistic this initiative won’t just fizzle out, though.
“I think what we really did is opened, I hope, a long-term dialogue to exchange ideas and priorities and issues that they have some insight on,” he said.
And, despite any concerns about millennials fleeing from Sarasota the first chance they get, Minton said many young people want desperately to stay put — and they’re prepared to do what it takes to make sure they can.
“We do want to be in Sarasota,” Minton said. “We’re willing to fight to stay here. People want to raise their families here. They don’t want to expand downtown so we can become this major entertainment hub. We just want to live in a place that likes us as much as we like it.”