10 Steps To Youth Integration
Challenging youth segregation can be tricky.
Anyone who advocates for youth involvement, youth engagement, youth voice, youth empowerment, or youth rights is ultimately calling for the same this: the integration of young people in our society.
As it stands, young people are routinely segregated from a lot of places. This includes the institutions that serve them directly, such as schools, nonprofits, governments, and faith-based communities. It also includes their homes, as well as places where they should be treated without bias but aren’t, including businesses. Ultimately, youth integration has to happen in all relationships between young people and adults. This work has been underway for more than two decades, and needs to unite now. It starts with re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society. In the last decade, I’ve worked in more than 200 communities across the US to help them re-envision their work with young people. Its been successful in some ways, challenging in others.
Through my efforts with The Freechild Project, along with similar programs across the country, a generation of young people and their adult allies have come to believe that our society can do more than simply do things to young people. Instead, we can co-create the world together. This notion reflects the wisdom, “Nothing about me without me is for me.” Studying my own work and the vast library of literature I’ve collected focusing on this approach, I’ve devised some key points for integrating youth throughout society. 10 Steps to Youth Integration
- Think Sustainable—Identify practical ways to ensure youth keep being integrated after an initial planning period. Begin by sitting down with a group of adults young people together and talk about the world today, their specific lives, and what they think needs to change. From the beginning, infuse youth in facilitation, evaluation, research, decision-making, and advocacy right into the culture of your group. If you must involve children and youth in a one-shot activity, let them know of real opportunities for them to be integrated with adults in their lives outside your group.
- Clear Purpose—Name a clear purpose for integrating young people in your community. Come up with a mission statement. Let youth and adults, organization leaders, parents, community members, and local schools know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Clarity of purpose is often missing from young people’s lives, as school is done to them, family is done to them, and stores are done to them. Anywhere in society looking to actually integrate young people needs to let young people know the world be done with them, and they should know why that’s important.
- Integrate The Non-Traditionally Engaged—Create space and help children and youth who haven’t been especially engaged in your community to become integrated. Actively integrating both traditionally involved young people and non-traditionally involved young people can radically transform your community in all sorts of ways. If you don’t know how to do this, get trained; if you need a reason, read this.
- Real Connections—When young people see themselves in your program, real connections are happening. When real connections happen, children and youth become engaged. While they may have obvious expertise or interests in a specific topic, its important for your group to help young people discover what they know right now, and to see what they know inside what you’re doing.
- Equity, Not Equality—Develop equitable roles between young people and adults. This means that groups don’t pretend all things between children, youth, and adults are 50/50 split equally, because in our adult-centered society that is simply never true. Equity allows young people and adults to enter into responsible relationships that acknowledge what each other knows and doesn’t know, and to work from that place instead of assuming everyone has equal ability and capacity. We’re all different; let’s not pretend otherwise.
- Grow Their Capacity—Grow the existing capacity of children and youth to become involved in planning. Both young people and adults can learn from training about work styles, assumptions, skills, and more.
- Make A Clear Plan—Having a specific pathway for young people to see how their integration will change their community. Are they contributing to an existing program? Opening a brand-new course of action and learning? Working with the same adults in new ways, or partnering with new adults? Its important to remember that creating a youth integration plan is not the culmination of work, but the starting point of a group’s efforts to create a more democratic society. A clear plan should include: 1) Practical next steps; 2) Roles and responsibilities for youth and adults; 3) an integration structure for your community; 4) group member evaluation opportunities. Setting priorities, using timelines with dates, and developing clear benchmarks for measuring success in each area can also enhance your community.
- Get Systemic—Encourage youth integration beyond your group. Young people can be engaged in researching their community, school, nonprofit program, or anything through PAR. They can facilitate, teach, and mentor peers, younger people, and adult. They can evaluate themselves, their organizations and communities, workplaces and businesses, and other places. They can participate in organizational, family, community, or other decision-making. They can advocate for what they care about. Ultimately, they can be engaged throughout society in every way you can imagine.
- Connect The Dots—Establish deep youth/adult partnerships wherever possible. Collaborations that reinforce learning will deepen any effort to integrate youth. The partnerships established in this process can deepen efforts through the future, and mutually support youth and adults throughout your community.
- Eyes Wide Open—Open the doors to critical examination. Use critical lenses to examine your assumptions and effects in your group. Identifying strengths and weaknesses allow groups and communities to improve the overall integration of youth, especially through your particular effort. Make space by giving young people permission and skills they need to be partners in mutual accountability with adults. In your group, set clear benchmarks and agree on celebrations when they’re met and consequences that young people can see for when those benchmarks are not met.
Aside from ethical considerations for youth integration, there is a practical basis to integrate youth throughout society. A variety of recent research demonstrates that there may be no parallel to making schools, youth programs, government agencies, and even families more effective. The most intuitive outcome is true: Integrating young people throughout society changes young people who experience integration.
Less obvious are the effects that youth integration has on adults throughout our communities. When they’re actively infused throughout the broader community, young people can actually affect the broad community beyond your group in a variety of ways over the short and long term. The effects include lifelong civic engagement, and developing strong and sustained connections to the educational, economic, and cultural values of their neighborhoods and cities. Youth integration can dream no higher goals. (See here, here, and here for some studies.)
More importantly though, this pathway shows that youth integration is feasible. What are you doing to get it going in your community?