How to Recruit Youth Today

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Youth have many choices to make today.

Let’s say that you’re 18 years old. You left school before graduating, and your friend’s mom is letting you stay in their garage.

You have many choices, and they’re stacked like this:

  • Apply for jobs
  • Break into a car to steal something
  • See if your old girlfriend wants to have sex

What’s going through your mind right now?

Curiosity floods your brain. Even if you’re not sure you can get a job, you know its something you should do, compared to stealing something or having sex. You know what the right thing to do is, but you’re not sure why this job application would be different from any others.

If you truly wanted immediate satisfaction, you’d find an easy car to break into, right? Or you’d give that girlfriend a call. You wouldn’t even take a glance at the job form.

But that’s not how we are built when we are young people.

Years ago, I consulted with an organization that taught youth adult living skills for students who dropped out of high school. They would take high risk (high hope) youth around local colleges and show them three types of programs: One offered job training and job placement; another offered a GED, job training and placement; and another that helped them earn a diploma, get into college, through college and placed in a career. And then they were asked if they were interested in the college program.

You bet they were. You would be, and so would I—we’d all be curious about what allowed people to get into and through college if we never knew it.

Youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison

Simply opening a youth program doesn’t make youth attend it. We’re clear on that, right?

That’s because youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison.

Let’s look at choosing youth programs in a vacuum.

Say a teenager decides to smoke weed in her free time. She’s been taught about the dangers of drugs, has a stable home with two parents and has a bright future ahead of her.

She’s not asking why at this point in time, because she has a of joint in her hand given to her by her best friend who is sitting right across from her, so she’s making a decision in a vacuum.

The same vacuum concept applies to your youth program, too.

Let’s say you’re passionate about using theater to empower youth. You launched an afterschool drama program for teens in your neighborhood that lasts two hours every night, and youth aren’t showing up.

Sure, they looked at the flyers you posted around the neighborhood and sent home to parents. If they talk to you, you’re incredibly exciting.

When you pour over your grant application and promotional materials, everything screams for youth to come through the door, and yet they aren’t. They are working in a vacuum.

However, when youth look at your program flyer, they see the date and time and think of all the other things they could do, even if we don’t acknowledge those things. Youth who sit on the couch watching TV are choosing that, as are youth who spend hours surfing the Internet with no purpose.

Would you have more youth showing up if they could playing video games? Theoretically speaking, yes. So why not add video game time? Or better yet, offer video games and offer pizza every day? Would you have more youth show up then?

You see what’s happening here, don’t you? As the frivolous things increase, your desire for the program goes down. That’s because you’re no longer working in a vacuum – you’re working on comparison.

You’re comparing your original program focused on theater with every other activity that was added onto it. And you compared your interest in theater to your interest in video games and pizza.

Right now, if you’re still determined, you’ll not only focus on theater, but you might even choose a specific style of theater you’re passionate about, like street performing or children’s theater.

But there’s a reason for that, and its called—and it’s called comparison.

Two distinct choosing phases

When young people choose anything, they’re almost always going through two distinct phases. The first phase is when they consider choices in a vacuum. Youth have been told to go to a program by their mom or teacher, but they have no clue why they should attend.

With all these options staring at them, young people simply pick the most immediate thing that fulfills their needs.

Using the ever-popular Maslow’s Hierarchy as a framework, it’s easy to understand why, after they have their survival and safety needs met young people aren’t automatically selecting to spend their time in your program.

You could start promoting your program on the basis of belonging. You could start telling them what it will do for their esteem. You might even appeal to their desire to make their hopes come true through your program.

But when you start illustrating those benefits clearly, young people are no longer working in a vacuum. Instead, they are comparing the benefits of what your program offers with what they’re doing with their time right now. They are comparing your organization to their friends, families and neighborhoods. They are even comparing the benefits of your program against each other by choosing which is more important to them according to Maslow’s Hierarchy.

If you make the case, at some point they will compare playing video games, eating pizza or smoking weed to your program—along with everything else at hand. Then it dawns on them that the most unusual thing they can choose, your program, is also the most beneficial—but now it doesn’t seem so unusual.

The best thing to do—attend your program—is now the most obvious thing to do, and they will choose it, but only in comparison.

So, how should you promote your program?

If your program operates where few others do, you can stop trying to be everything to every youth all of the time. Instead, focus on one thing and do that thing excellently.

If you’re competing for the attention, energy and time of young people then you’ll have to play by their rules. Listen to them, validate what they’re saying, authorize them to do something, take action and reflect on it with them.

However, if you have a lot of time where you’d offer your program regularly and you’re looking for something else to do to serve youth, then you can have several versions of your program or other programs to offer. Young people can then move from comparing your program to other programs in the neighborhood toward comparing your program to other programs you offer.

For example, if you run a theater program, young people can choose from your agency’s theater program, which is short and fun, and your fiscal education program, which is longer and more intellectual.

Even in a very competitive neighborhood where your program is competing with other youth programs, gang membership, ample youth jobs and sitting around the house, you want to create a situation where they have stopped considering everything else and are now choosing from your organization’s range of programs.

If you’re offering a program where there’s nothing else like it in your community, then there’s still a reason for creating a comparison structure.

Youth will look around and choose whether to get involved based on how you appeal to their needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy — even if they’re comparing apples to oranges.

For example, if you were to recruit for a program on outdoor education and a program on service learning, they aren’t particularly similar. Yet, the benefits of one program influences how youth look at the benefits of the other program.

And even if a young person selects one program your organization offers this time, next time they may move to your program, depending on your ability to benefit them.

Create that comparison

Whether you’re recruiting youth for a photography course, youth employment program, interpretive dance workshop, or GED classes, the one factor to remember is that young people either choose in a vacuum or in a comparison structure.

You want to get them to compare. Once you’ve gotten them to pay attention to your program, you should then have a series of benefit comparisons on your own flyer and website.

Create that comparison. Even if you don’t have a range of programs yet, get started moving in that direction today.

When you do, you can still list (or decrease) the list of benefits to appeal to youth. Remember that they want to make choices, and they do not want to be told what to do.

It’s at that point that youth comparing benefits becomes a strategy, by discouraging them having a knee-jerk reaction.

And it’s at that point that you getting youth through the door en masse. That will make you—and the youth you work with—a lot happier.

Organizations Seeing Themselves

mirrorIn organizations and communities, people around the world are wrestling with their observations of the present and their projections for the future. We’re watching media images of terrorism and hatefulness mix with our own memories of what the future was supposed to look like. As we work more and spend more time at school, we’re loosing connections with family, friends, neighbors and others who we used to be tight with.

Our organizations are living through this, too. Schools, nonprofits, businesses and governments are feeling the effects of separation and alienation, disconnection and disengagement. The platforms that were to unite us are taking us apart also, and the leaders who’ve led us seem awash in corruption or indifference to our well-being.

Within all of this lies a hopefulness and possibility that cannot be forgotten though. Our organizations weren’t founded on cynicism or disbelief, and our communities weren’t brought together by pain or hate; they were united by faith and trust, mutuality and reciprocity. Somewhere in all those contrasting images there’s an emerging vision for the highest potential and greatest possibilities of ourselves, our livelihoods and our future.

I work with individuals, organizations and communities to help foster deeper understanding of what our hopes and dreams are as individuals and as collectives. Like a million billion Venn Diagrams, our possibilities overlap and emerge as a unified vision for the future that moves along with pragmatic practicality. I coach individuals towards contextualizing their vision for world change; I educate groups to increase the capacity of communities to become present and co-create the future we share; and I inspire organizations through thoughtful, powerful talks that usher in our own greatest visions for ourselves and the world we share.

Learn more from my post, Mirrors of Our Interiors.

Questions to Consider

  • What do you see in your organization?
  • What do you see in yourself?
  • Where are you going?
  • How can I support you getting there?

The Simple Formula for Youth Engagement

transform

Engaging young people does not require a miracle formula or spectacular logic. Instead, we simply need to recognize the roles that most affect young people. We can engage young people by transforming adults, organizations, and communities.

Learn more from my FREE A Short Introduction to Youth Engagement and at The Freechild Project website.

Adult-Driven Youth Voice

Youth Voice is any expression of any young person anywhere, all the time, about anything. It doesn’t depend on adult approval, it doesn’t need specific spaces or energies, and is always present wherever young people are. The question generally is whether adults want to hear what’s being said.

If a young person is talking in front of a group sharing their beliefs or experience, ideas or knowledge, they’re sharing youth voice. The same can be true of leadership, community service, and teambuilding activities. However, young people who cut themselves are sharing youth voice, just like youth graffiti artists, students who text answers during tests, and gang members. The question isn’t whether they’re sharing youth voice, because they always are – the question is whether adults want to hear what’s being said.

This leads to the phenomenon of adult-driven youth voice.

Characteristics of Adult-Driven Youth Voice

Adult-Driven Youth Voice is when adults motivate, inspire, inform, encapsulate, and generally make youth voice become convenient for adults. Adult-Driven Youth Voice is Convenient Youth Voice. Here are five characteristics of adult-driven youth voice.

  • WHO: Youth who adults want to hear from are selected to share their voices. All young people are members of all the communities they occupy, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. However, adult-driven youth voice selects specific young people who may not jostle adults’ opinions or ideas to share youth voice.
  • WHAT: Young people say what adults want. They usually echoing or parroting adult beliefs, ideas, knowledge, and/or experience. If they share their own, adults largely agree with what young people have said.
  • WHEN: The calendar is determined by adults for youth. Young people are listened to when adults have the interest or ability to hear them, and not necessarily when children or youth want to be heard.
  • WHERE: Youth voice happens in places adults want it to be shared. Whether on a graffiti wall in a forgotten alley downtown, in a boxing gym for teenagers, in debate class, or at a city-run forum for youth to share their opinions about something, youth voice happens where adults approve of.
  • WHY: Adults solicit youth voice about specific issues. Young people have a variety of perspectives about all kinds of subjects. However, adult-driven youth voice allows only perspectives on issues that are important to adults or that adults pick for young people. If young people move outside adult-driven boundaries, they are either re-directed or expected to stop sharing their voices.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the above characteristics. However, this article isn’t meant to share those judgments; instead, I want to encourage you to think for yourself about what matters and why it matters. After you’ve done that, visit The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit to find tools, examples, and other resources to help you with youth voice.

Special thanks to my spectacular friend and longtime comrade Heather Manchester. Her critical thinking and willingness to kick my butt inspired this post (and many others!) and I stand indebted to her genius, patience, and energy she shares with me.