The Voices of Youth in Crisis

Youth in crisis are young people who face imbalanced challenges due to circumstances beyond their control. Through the concern of international, national, state and local governments around the world, the voices of these youth are being engaged like never before. Few people are talking about how that happens though.


My own experience

As a child, I experienced routine homelessness as my family constantly moved to escape my dad’s demons of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder. When I was a youth, I was constantly subjected to violence in my gang- and drug-infested neighborhood. As the only one of four siblings to graduate from school on time; as the first in my family to go to college; and as a one-time homeless youth struggling with depression and a sense of purposelessness in the world, I know what it means to be a youth in crisis coming from a family in crisis. These issues resonate with me deeply.

However, as you may know from my speeches and books, the topics of youth voice, youth involvement, youth engagement and youth empowerment matter to me a lot, too. My first job working with youth was as a teacher/assistant director in a theatre program when I was 14, which I continued for three summers and which set my life’s work trajectory in this area. I started a neighborhood youth council when I was 17, and learned about all this when I was 24. Its almost 20 years later, and I’m still celebrating the positive, powerful potential of young people! This matters, too.

For the last 20 years, I’ve been contracting with nonprofits, government agencies, K-12 schools and other organizations across the United States and Canada to build youth voice, foster youth engagement and support meaningful youth involvement. I have spoken, trained and advised more than 500 organizations in 200 communities, at hundreds of conferences, and to more than 1,000,000 youth and adults. The entire time, while I’ve sought to help all youth everywhere, I’ve focused my conversations on “nontraditional youth leaders” and young people who are historically denied opportunities to share their voice. In addition to young people of color and low-income youth, I was talking about youth in crisis, I was working with youth in crisis, and I was struggling for youth in crisis to become engaged as full partners within their communities rather than being treated as passive recipients.

This month, I began a national and international scan of youth voice among services for youth in crisis. Following are my initial findings from that scan.


Basic terms

Voices of Youth in Crisis by Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement

 

When I talk about youth in crisis, I am talking about young people who are:

  • Homeless
  • Ran away from home
  • Dropped out
  • Violent
  • Thinking suicidal thoughts
  • Are abused
  • Hungry
  • Pushed out
  • Bullied
  • Experience violence
  • Experience self-harm
  • Neglected
  • Experience sexual explotation
  • Abandoned by a parent or guardian
  • Experiencing eating disorders
  • Suffering from a substance abuse, or
  • Have mental health issues

Youth who are from these areas are generally seen as “highly vulnerable populations” and as “at risk youth;” alternatively, they are also addressed as “opportunity youth” and “youth at hope.”

I’ve found that terms, ideas and concepts supporting and aligning with the idea of youth voice and meaningful youth involvement in this area include:

  • Youth voice and choice
  • Youth empowerment
  • Youth leadership
  • Peer support
  • Youth/adult partnerships
  • Youth engagement
  • Youth-led programs
  • Youth as partners
  • Peer-to-peer
  • Youth-driven activities
  • Youth led prevention
  • Youth in policy
  • Youth-run programs

Some of the specific issues include: Community, family, and youth voice; Client engagement; Family and youth advisory boards; Collaborations throughout communities; Whole family empowerment programs; Internet engagement; Youth as trainers; Participant service evaluations; and more.

Specific activities include engaging youth as advocates; youth as trainers; youth as evaluators; youth as planners; youth as decision-makers; youth as facilitators; youth as policy-makers; and more.

 


Efforts to engage youth voice

Places to Engage the Voices of Youth in Crisis

 

A lot of people are concerned about youth in crisis. However, my recent scan shows that few of them are specifically, directly and concentratedly concerned about fostering youth voice or promoting youth engagement. Organizations and agencies that address these issues consistently focus on prevention, intervention, education and empowerment.

Currently, in governments and nongovernmental agencies across the globe, fields addressing these issues include:

  • Social service agencies
  • Human service agencies
  • Courts and the legal justice system
  • Crisis response
  • Child welfare
  • Juvenile justice
  • Zero youth incarceration
  • Youth homelessness
  • Family advocates
  • Educators
  • Public health
  • Religious organizations
  • Community organizations

National nonprofits

For instance, Safe Families for Children is a national advocacy organization with chapters nationwide, including in WA. They work across the spectrum, including with churches, and occasionally address youth voice in service provision, including in their Family Friendly Handbook. Another organization called USA Cares provides financial and advocacy assistance to post-9/11 active duty US military service personnel, veterans and their families. However, there is little evidence they have focused on youth engagement or youth voice specifically. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors represents the organizations receiving government money that make up the public mental health service delivery system. Representing state mental health commissioners/directors and their agencies, this organization works with states, federal partners, and stakeholders to promote wellness, recovery, and resiliency for people with mental health conditions or co-occurring mental health and substance related disorders across all ages and cultural groups, including youth. A hugely influential organization, they focus on youth voice in several documents, but do not highlight it on their website or overall.

The National Safe Place Network works to ensure an effective system of response for youth in crisis through public and private partnerships at a local, state and national level. National Safe Place Network envisions a world where all youth are safe; however, the organization doesn’t talk about youth voice. They are concerned about youth empowerment though, and there’s a track about it at their annual conference. The Child Mind Institute is an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. However, I can’t find reference to youth voice, youth empowerment and related topics in their materials online.

Other national and international nonprofit organizations focusing on youth and families in crisis which should provide information about youth voice but apparently don’t include the National Association of County and City Health Officials. NACCHO does provide info on injury and violence among youth, but not on the role of youth voice in solving the issue. The World Bank has a report called “Children and Youth in Crisis Protecting and Promoting Human Development in Times of Economic Shocks,” but doesn’t generally provide information on youth engagement for youth in crisis.

The online resource databases related to youth in crisis don’t seem to address youth voice, either. One of the most interesting resources available today is called “Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development.” A registry of evidence-based positive youth development programs, it seeks to promote the health and well-being of children and youth. Blueprints is hosted by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV), at the Institute of Behavior Science, University of Colorado Boulder, and is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Another resources is called Connect Safely Resources for Youth In Crisis is a list of opportunities for youth provided by a nonprofit focused on safety, privacy and security.

Federal agencies

For its 50+ programs that deal with the issues related to youth and families in crisis, the US federal government provides little information on youth voice, youth engagement, youth empowerment and youth-led programs. They do, however, provide substantial information on the issue of youth and families in crisis. For instance, the Children’s Bureau in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hosts the massive Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety, permanency, and well-being of children, youth, and families by connecting child welfare, adoption, and related professionals as well as the public to information, resources, and tools covering topics on child welfare, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and more. Its a powerful tool. I have to similarly applaud youth.gov. Its a massive U.S. government website that helps organizations and individual people create, maintain, and strengthen effective youth programs. There are a lot of youth facts, funding information, and tools to help assess community assets, generate maps of local and federal resources, search for evidence-based youth programs, and keep up-to-date on the latest, youth-related news. Its a great source of information, and even features a significant collection of information about youth engagement specifically from the working group that coordinates it, as well as from individual agencies like SAMHSA. The The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is an office of the United States Department of Justice and a component of the Office of Justice Programs, and they offer some related info at the OJJDP website.

National and international foundations

Some of the foundations that reportedly support youth voice in the area of youth and families in crisis include the MacArthur Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Arnold Foundation, Annie Casey Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.


Greatest hope?

Youth MOVE National and its chapters advocate for youth voice and rights in mental health and other systems that serve young people, for the purpose of empowering youth to be equal partners in the process of change. Youth Motivating Others through Voices of Experience (M.O.V.E.) National is a youth and young-adult led national advocacy organization that wants to change the world. The organization is devoted to improving services and systems that support young people. They focus on empowering young people to partner with adults to create meaningful change in mental health, juvenile justice, education, and child welfare systems. The organization represents 77 chapters (link is external), consisting of 9,000 members across 39 states.

Perhaps Youth MOVE is the greatest hope we have to build meaningful involvement for youth in crisis. Helping people understand the power of youth voice, the potential of youth engagement and the purpose of youth-led programs to serve youth in crisis is essential.

There is also a lot of action happening at the local level nationwide, with a smaller amount at the state level. Internationally, I’m still scanning for agencies, programs and organizations addressing youth in all kinds of crisis. If you know of any specific efforts locally or internationally, or on the national and federal levels in the US, please share them in the comments below!

Let’s move this forward!

 


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Elsewhere Online

 

5 Steps to Integrate Youth

Nike, Levi’s, and a lot of other brands that sell things to youth have realized that the secret to marketing to youth is personalization: Let them help design it, and young people will spend a lot for it. At the same time, many websites allow young users to develop sophisticated personal profiles, letting them connect their friends, identify with organizations and causes they want to be affiliated with, and personalize the look and operation of the website to suit their personal tastes. According to a recent expose by CBS News, “In 1983, companies spent $100 million marketing to kids. Today, they’re spending nearly $17 billion annually. That’s more than double what it was in 1992.”

In the face of this, young people routinely experience the rest of society being done to them and for them, instead of with them or by themselves.


I believe children and youth are not the consumers of their lives. However, it is clear to me that marketers (again) have one up on all adults who work with young people. Rather than following their direct lead, I think there are lessons we can learn from them. Here are 5 steps to integrate youth.
5 Steps to Integrate Youth

1) Educate yourself first. Recognize that all young people are segregated everywhere, all the time. I wrote a series of articles for The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit such as “Guidelines for Youth Voice” and “Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment for Youth Voice” that can teach you before you work to build youth integration in your community.

2) See all young people. Read a piece about youth voice and young children and the role of youth engagement for infants and children I wrote on the CommonAction blog. In the history of children in the US, a lot of it focuses on the suffering of young children. But a few historians actually acknowledge that even young children have always been important to the well-being of the United States. That’s even more true today than ever before.

3) Invest in your own development. You don’t have to spend money on advertisements or developing apps. Instead, invest in time by attending trainings, conducting social media activities, and taking deliberate actions to integrate young people throughout your community. Find out what CommonAction Consulting can do with your organization or community.4) Strengthen youth involvement. If you want young people to be integrated, you have to involve them throughout every part of your community. That includes planning, research, facilitation, training, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy. Learn how to do all this and more from the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum.

5) Everywhere, all the time. When businesses want to sell things to young people, they ingratiate themselves throughout the lives of children and youth, in their clothing, video games, and other places. We must take according steps without overspending on technology or t-shirts by taking steps to integrate young people throughout their communities. Learn about Hampton, Virginia for a great example of what this looks like.

There are many other steps to take, but integrating youth is an essential responsibility we should all take on. These are some ways to do that.

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Elements of Successful Community Engagement

The nature of community programs continues to evolve.

More than ever, nonprofits, government agencies, and other programs are being challenged to transform their goals, activities, assessments, and resources in order to motivate, educate, and engage people beyond simple participation. In a time when many communities are stuck in a malaise, community programs require a realignment to grow beyond what they’ve done.

Appearances Matter

People appear to have more options with what to do with their time, making it ironic they need community programs more than ever. However, the technology, recreation, sports, faith-based activities, and opportunities to earn income that were present just a decade ago simply aren’t in many communities anymore.

Considering these dual realities of increased need and decreased opportunities, it is absolutely vital that nonprofit and government program providers get earnest about successfully engaging all people in their programming.

After more than a decade promoting community engagement across the US and Canada, I have found what works and doesn’t work for engaging all sorts of people. These lessons have to be deconstructed and reapplied in each community, because all communities are different.

I have read the research, worked directly with people, and struggled through many projects focused on community engagement. Following are some elements I consider essential to successfully engaging all kinds of people in community programs.

Elements of Successful Community Engagement

  • Focused – Instead of meandering through purposeless activities and focus-less personal activities, every program session is designed to be a concise, deliberative engagement of multiple intelligences, broad perspectives, and varying experiences. Successfully engaging people remains the central goal of all activities, and is the focus of every program.
  • Supportive – Youth and adults alike are committed to working together without fear of retribution or alienation. All people are partners with each other in community programs, and everyone works together for the common cause of engaging more people throughout the community.
  • Engaging – The experiences, knowledge, ideas, and opinions of people are validated and substantiated with meaningful learning experiences that infuse everyone with a new capacity to visualize, analyze, create, and engage themselves.
  • Critical – As co-learners within a community of learners, all people provide vital insight in the learning and teaching process for their peers and facilitators in community programs. These democratic interactions are actively encouraged and supported by all members.
  • Transparent – There should be no mysteries about what the purpose of the community program is, or what the outcomes of the activities will be. Community programs should offer numerous ways to make goals, outcomes, and activities fully understandable to people.

These are not simply the keys to successful community programs, nor to successfully engaging people. They are the elements of successfully engaging people throughout their communities all all sorts of programs. Its important to consider that these programs and their organizations are unique and different, and these elements are recognized for paying attention to that.

With these in mind, you can go forth and make a difference in the lives of the people you serve through your activities.

Want to talk about me doing a workshop for your organization or community? Get in touch!

 

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