Since the 1970s, there’s been a national movement to promote youth voice. Funny enough, there’s never been just one definition of youth voice, so its not surprising that the movement never really took off. I wrote the my Short History of Youth Voice in the United States back in 2005, and since then I’ve uncovered a lot more history. Historical writer Phillip Hoose has contributed extensively to these findings too. However, he and I aren’t really writing about a movement, per se, but instead, incidents. In 2004, the National Youth Leadership Council invited me to think about the question of whether the youth voice movement was dead, and almost 10 years later I know the answer.
I came to Pittsburgh in 2011 to share the basics of Youth-Driven Programming with almost 50 providers from across Allegheny County. The year before the University of Pittsburgh’s Youth and Family Training Institute brought me to State College to talk with youth providers from the systems of care movement. Throughout my times with these different program workers, organization leaders, and others, I learned about many different ways youth voice is engaged throughout Allegheny County. Before I explore some of these examples, let’s define some terms.
- Youth Voice. I define any expression of any young people anywhere, anytime, about anything, as youth voice. This wide-open definition allows for the broad diversity of children and youth to be acknowledged, and makes it so that youth voice is not contingent on whether or not adults want to hear it. Listening to youth voice is a step towards youth engagement, but they’re not the same.
- Youth Engagement. After reviewing the research literature and writing a variety of summaries about it, I defined youth engagement as the sustained connection young people feel to the world within and around them. This includes all types of connections, from interpersonal to intrapersonal, animated to stagnant, social to personal. Youth engagement is required for youth-driven programming, but can exist without YDP.
- Youth-Driven Programming. YDP is a guiding philosophy and practice for organizations that integrates youth as partners in a variety of ways throughout organizations and communities. YDP is among the deepest forms of youth integration that can happen in nonprofits, government agencies, and faith-based community.
All that said, youth voice is a lot broader than YDP. YDP demands an integrity and commitment that a lot of organizations simply can’t make. However, all organizations can and should listen to youth voice. As simple expression, youth voice can be everything from youth on boards to graffiti and poetry, and from youth surveys to clothing and music. Youth voice is any expression of young people, and not just those that adults want to hear.
In Allegheny County, there are several examples of organizations that use YDP to effectively reach young people. Following are just a few.
- CHANGE – The Children’s Hospital Advisory Network for Guidance and Empowerment (CHANGE) is a youth led and driven board which advises Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC about the youth perspective and issues that affect this population. It will work to ensure successful adult lives for youth who have special healthcare needs or have faced barriers in healthcare transition.
- Summer Youth Philanthropy Interns – Recognizing the need to incorporate a youth voice in its grant making, The Heinz Endowments again employed recent high school graduates as summer youth philanthropy interns. The program included eight teams of interns at local nonprofit organizations, each of which awarded $25,000 in grants.
- SITY (Systems Improvement Through Youth) – Comprised of 14 individuals, ages 16 through 25 years, who are active in or alumni of DHS and related child-serving systems including child welfare, drug and alcohol, education, juvenile justice, mental health and mental retardation. Building on the value of their personal experiences in the system, they will be assisted to develop leadership skills as advocates and system advisors, be provided with positive experiences of social service careers and policymaking, and be encouraged in their professional development.
As each of these show, YDP is much more involved, sophisticated, and impacting than youth voice. They represent the next forefront of work for afterschool providers across the nation, and especially in Allegheny County. Here are several resources that might be useful for your own YDP efforts:
- What is Youth-Driven Programming? from AfterschoolPGH.
- The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide by Adam Fletcher for CommonAction Consulting.
- Dos and Don’ts of Youth-Driven Programming by Adam Fletcher for CommonAction Consulting.