- Begin by acknowledging the real ways young people express themselves right now throughout their own lives, across their communities, and around our world. Youth voice happens all the time. Do adults want to hear what it is, or make it into what we want it to be?
- Foster genuine commitment within your organization to actually engage young people beyond simply listening to what they say. Do adults actually want young people to be full partners?
- Create interest among constituents- including young people, adults, or seniors- to contribute beyond their voices. Are adults willing to allow them to come in on young peoples’ own terms instead of our own?
- Position young people in sustained opportunities to impact change as real doers and decision-makers. Are adults ready to cede power, share power, and relinquish our power as adults?
- Educate young people about the whole issue that affects them, not just what they already know. Are adults committed to building the abilities of young people to be full partners instead of minor players.
- Open places for everyone- adults and young people- to teach one another and be acknowledged for what they’re sharing. Can adults actually create fully equitable environments and cultures for full youth-adult partnerships?
- Go to young people where they’re at and have earnest conversations with them instead of insisting they come to where you are for inauthentic listening events. Are adults threatened by the spaces young people occupy without our control? Can we release our control and be with the fear?
- Develop activities that integrate and ingratiate young people and adults with each other. Can adults sustain their commitment to expand, expand, expand authentic youth voice, instead of simply trying and then stopping?
- Give young people real opportunities to research the issues for themselves and to share their findings with their friends, families, neighbors, and others. Do adults trust young people to come to their own conclusions and can we allow them the access they need to do that?
- Sustain authentic youth engagement by sharing the benefits of authentic engagement with young people. Can adults make a genuine case to young people for why they should be involved, how they should be involved, and what they should be involved in? Or are we incapable of that?
About Authentic Youth Voice
When adults proclaim to want to hear young peoples’ voices, they’re often assuming that young people don’t want to or are incapable of doing anything other than sharing their voice. This includes schools that want to hear student voice, youth-serving organizations that want to listen to youth voice, businesses that want customers to make token choices, and politicians that want to engage young people in political processes.
These organizations often ignore the ability or deny the desire of young people to have meaningful input in the things that affect them most. The problem with this is that today, more young people more often want and actually require AUTHENTIC opportunities to become engaged in the activities throughout their lives. Authentic means real, whole, true, and meaningful. Young people want to share their music with the world. They want to help the President get reelected. They want to help lead school reform, have more consumer choices for their broad tastes, and design the streets they walk, ride, and drive on. Children and youth want in like never before.
Adults have access to the technology, both electronic and real-time, to make this happen. We have a growing capacity throughout the vast array of community leadership to be able to engage people in these ways. We have the ability.
What adults need is a non-cynical commitment to humanity and its capacity to serve itself best. What our communities need is for determination and perseverance to overcome sarcasm and irony. What we need is hope. Hope that young people love and care and know and do. Hope that young people have justice and peace in their hearts, and because of that they want to make the world a just and peaceful place- if given the opportunity.
Unfortunately, the organizations that peddle youth voice are often the most cynical. They most frequently steal voice for their own purposes, selling young people they serve on the effectiveness of sharing their voice. “You’ll help guide us,” they tell children and youth as they take their opinions and squirrel them away in the backrooms of file cabinets and unpaid interns. Young people know they’re stealing voice when there is little or no accountability for what’s been shared with them. They know these organizations are stealing voice when they wrote their statement beforehand and used the collected voices to bolster their thoughts afterwards. Young people know.
What is needed is truth, accountability, reciprocity, and engagement. Genuine, authentic, real engagement. Nothing less will suffice.