Why create systems that exclude youth voice? There is a growing consensus that engaging youth as partners is vital to successfully working with children and youth as partners. So why are there still nonprofit organizations, private foundations, government agencies and other institutions throughout society that aren’t actively engaging youth as partners?
I’m here at day two if the CDC’s Weight of the Nation conference, and right now I’m listening to a presentation on community organizing. I’m here to hear Yvonne Garrett talk about engaging youth as evaluators in a San Diego program focused on policy and environmental change. It’s making me wonder why, after all these years of change, we still have ignorance and resistance to engaging youth as partners throughout society.
The 4 Walls to Youth Voice
I’m going to boil it down to four primary barriers, or walls to Youth Voice:
1. Awareness. Everyone needs to learn about the necessity of youth engagement. Parents need to learn that engaging their children at home and throughout community is vital. Teachers, youth workers, politicians and others need to discover why young people are key partners in their work.
2. Skills. It’s important to acknowledge that the ability to engage youth isn’t born into all youth allies. Instead, there is a unique set of skills that must be learned, including active listening, systems advocacy, deliberative allyship, and so on.
3. Opportunities. There is no limit to different ways to engage young people as partners: research, planning, teaching, evaluation, decision-making and advocacy are how I describe the tip of a very large iceberg. We need institutions throughout society to see children and youth as more than the simple targets or recipients of our services. Instead, we need to see young people as effective and sustainable partners in our social change efforts.
4. Resources. Fancy programs, long books and powerful research abounds, each demanding the attention of folks trying to make positive headway in this work. However, accessing these tools can be hard for poor families, underfunded organizations and under-resourced agencies. We need to put tools in the hands of the people who actually DO this work.
Identifying these barriers is a means to an end: we must identify and share lessons learned in addressing them. Only in this way can we begin to construct deliberate cultures that support youth engagement throughout society. I want to do nothing less.