Systems Change and Youth Voice

Almost two years ago I began work in Washington State’s department of health. In my capacity as the agency’s school health manager I was determined to infuse young people as partners throughout my work. Already familiar with the machinations of state government because of my earlier work with the state’s education agency, I was fairly confident I could make some headway.

Within the first six months my longstanding co-conspirator in student involvement, Greg Williamson, and I had written youth engagement into our state’s strategic plan for Coordinated School Health. It wasn’t just another line about “listening to youth voice” either: instead we sought to fully engage youth as partners at the state and local levels as decision-makers, advocates and evaluators. Within a year we launched an ambitious effort to build a statewide Youth School Health Cadre comprised of students working in schools across the state focused on school health improvement. I secured additional funds from Action For Healthy Kids to support that work, and for the last several months Greg and I have been working diligently towards our goals. Working with partners we’ve encouraged a state advocacy organization to write youth engagement into their plans; advocated for our state’s school health conference to make youth engagement the main conference theme, and; worked with allies within our agencies to support their efforts to engage youth, as well.

Engaging in systems change is complex work. Under the tutelage of Giselle Martin-Kneip and Jaimie Cloud, I learned that we should aim to influence a variety of complex components in school improvement. Curricular improvement, professional development, and educational leadership are all areas of transformation at work on the local building level. Through my work with SoundOut I discovered the levers of classroom management and formal school improvement work were important in engaging students as partners in school change. Starting my job in public health, I was determined to learn about state legislation and policy-making, and discover the effectiveness of those levers. Now I’m preparing to enter my second session as the senior policy analyst for the agency, as well as continuing the school year with our Students Taking Charge program.

With all of this work underway, I can confidently say that because of working with partners and allies like Greg, I have actually fostered systems change in our state’s schools and public health field. However, I’m faced with a question of effectiveness: just because we’ve brought youth into the system, does that mean the system will sustain youth engagement? Does that mean youth engagement will be effective? Does that mean that the system has the capacity to continuously and successfully promote the deepened integration of youth throughout society?

These are questions I grapple with tonight.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

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