A lot of organizations don’t know where to begin with Youth Voice. They complain that young people don’t attend their activities, or that youth who do show up don’t have a voice. Building Youth Voice requires a deliberate strategy for action and transformation.
Eight Building Blocks For Youth Voice The following can be a checklist. If you want to engage Youth Voice in your youth-serving program or organization, ask yourself if you have the following building blocks.
The Foundation: A champion.
Do you have an individual in your organization who is leading youth engagement efforts? This person needs to be a champion who is knowledgeable, committed, and shares the experiences of youth you’re targeting. This is the most important step.
The Concrete: Commitment.
Does your organization’s Board of Directors value youth engagement beyond gestures or language by having 1/3 to 2/3rds of the seats on the Board filled by people under 30?
The Walls: Connectedness.
Are 50% of your Board members from the local neighborhood you’re serving? If you’re serving an entire city or county, do you recruit members reflecting the racial and socio-economic diversity of your area?
The Siding: Attachment.
Have you hired local youth or young adults into relevant positions within your organization? They must have local high school experiences and direct interaction with young people, and relevant training.
The Front Door: Relevance.
Does your organization have great programs relevant to youth in your area? They need a variety of educational, social, recreational, and other opportunities to be who they are, and to feel seen by your organization.
The Interior Design: Fun.
Do staff provide purely fun and social activities with no hidden agenda of selling them other programs or your organization’s goals? Do they fuse fun into the regular operating activities of the program?
The Yard: Broadening.
Do your youth programs connect young people beyond just your programs for them? Do they have opportunities to learn or play with adults, participate in community conversations, or do substantive activities with diverse community members?
The Sidewalk: Building.
No matter what your goals are, does your program seek to acknowledge the skills and knowledge young people already have and build upon them?
This is what has worked for the organizations CommonAction has worked with as we’ve founded more than 100 Youth Voice projects and programs in communities around the world.
What doesn’t work is using the same thinking that created the problem of youth disengagement to try to engage Youth Voice in your program or organization. Everything you’re doing is surely a necessary part of positive youth development, but just continuing on that pathway isn’t enough. Youth programs and youth-serving organizations cannot just be about any one issue anymore, and everyone has to focus on youth engagement. Engaging Youth Voice is a prime avenue to youth engagement. However, without these building blocks in place, young people will not be with you.
Finally, lead by example. Young people are watching everything you do right now, no matter who you are or what you do within your organization, community, or throughout your life. If you’re an aloof executive director who doesn’t make time to connect with youth in your organization’s programs, youth in your program will be that way too. If you’re a hyper-busy program worker with too much on their plate and little support, young people in your program will know that. So check yourself and lead by example.
Every program and organization can successfully engage Youth Voice, and its our ethical responsibility to do that. What are you gonna do today?!?
Changing our minds is necessary for successful youth engagement in schools and communities. Coming to understand the absolute dire necessity for youth engagement and understanding the inherent ethical demands therein is essential for everyone. This is particularly true for adults who work with and for young people everyday, including parents, teachers, youth workers, politicians, and others.
However, this strong personal transformation isn’t systematic or necessarily sustainable. Despite many well-meaning adults’ interest in engaging young people, they don’t have reliable structural and cultural supports within their environments to ensure their efforts have the impact they could or should have. Instead, students leave the classroom of one well-intended teacher only to face six others throughout the day where teachers aren’t committed to student/adult partnerships. Or the homeless youth voice project that empowered those youth has no follow-up once those youth have secure places to live, and so on.
The reality of these situations is that we have little puddles of youth engagement in the world today. There are some communities where those puddles for ponds, and only a couple where those ponds forms lakes. However, there are oceans of separation between these adult allies of children and youth, and we need something more.
Moving Away from Puddles and towards Water Cycles
I’ve written about this and studied systems supporting youth voice. Here are the main elements I’ve found consistently arise.
Organizations Have Policy and Practice. There are ways to carry out the policies that support the objectives of goals of Youth Voice
Data Driven Practice. Data related to Youth Voice as it affects the young people involved, their peers, adult allies, and the larger community is regularly collected.
Budget Supports Action. Budgets include line items that support the implementation of Youth Voice activities.
New Knowledge is Fostered. Regular training orients new youth participants and adults and strengthens existing youth and adult allies’ skills, knowledge and commitment to Youth Voice.
Accountable Action at the Grassroots. Policies supporting Youth Voice activities have been published in a document available to youth, adult allies, youth workers, government officials, politicians and families.
Accountable Action at the Treetops. The Youth Voice coordinator reports to a high-level administrator and the position is incorporated into the organizational chart.
Change is Temporary; Support is Permanent. The Youth Voice program has survived a significant change of leadership among youth, adult allies and within the group, organization and/or community.
Community Informed Action. Other groups, organizations and/or communities are assisted in designing, implementing, sustaining and/or evaluating their Youth Voice activities through conferences, workshops and/or local outreach.
Policies and Practices are Shared and Compared. Organizations, groups, and communities actively “swap notes” about policies and practices in order to strengthen self-perception and grow beyond limited views.
Networks and Coalitions are Formed. Like-minded individuals and organizations, including youth and adult allies, form networks for support and coalitions for advocacy. Tangible action, practical outcomes, and meaningful activities form and reform the bonds that unite them.
There are some resources out there that address systemitizing youth voice. One is a report about the funding practices and outcomes of a Bay Area, California, foundation focused on youth engagement. Another is a database of national youth policies from around the world compiled by a UNESCO initiative called Plan With Youth. The last one I’ll include here is the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing’s 2010 Youth Organizing Field Scan. All of these are incomplete resources that don’t necessarily support wide-ranging strategies to move beyond isolation, insolarization, polarization, or silo-ing among youth voice initiatives. However, they move closer than others.
Please share your resource or idea in the comments section, and let me know what you think of these puddles of engagement!
There are places throughout our communities that engage us as people in things outside of ourselves that are larger than ourselves. Then there are other things people do that deeply engage us within ourselves. In popular culture that seems to pull us into those extremes constantly without attention to balancing our interests, it can be important to acknowledge that there are different positions for different activities throughout our lives.
Envisioning Our Connections
One day a comrade and I were talking about different ways folks engage throughout their lives when I had an epiphany about how to illustrate this dynamic between self-oriented engagement and socially-oriented engagement.
Rather than draw it on a static spectrum I saw the necessity of demonstrating the breadth of value different activities can have towards their given ends. Quickly brainstorming some possibilities, I acknowledged the following patterns emerge in my own work.
Different types of engagement activities affect different people in different ways.
The broadest measurement for success in engaging people is how closely they fit a given definition of engagement.
Engagement is the sustained connection a person feels with something inside or outside of themselves. This definition makes no value judgment about different perspectives and outcomes of engagement; instead, it positions engagement as a non-linear phenomenon both within and outside of a person.
For the purpose of measuring the efficacy of an activity in relationship to this definition, in a workshop participants would brainstorm a variety of activities that engage people within themselves and in their own lives, and activities that engage people outside of themselves and throughout their whole communities.
Personal engagement (or self) happens when activities engage a person within themselves. This could include exercise, listening to music, studying, meditation, and reading.
Community engagement (or social) activities engage a person throughout their larger world. They may include reading the newspaper, eating dinner with your family, volunteering at an animal shelter, sitting on a nonprofit board of directors, volunteering for a play, and so forth.
When people brainstorm these lists, it can be useful to be as specific as possible.
The essential part of this activity happens next:
Have a brief conversation comparing what they’ve found in their own identifying of activities.
Then chart actions on the following diagram. On this diagram, activities with the most impact on an individual (personal engagement) would be charted at the extreme left of the spectrum; while the activities we do solely for others (community engagement) would be on the right. Activities that mutually benefit both ourselves and others would be in the middle (universal engagement).
When completed, participants should have a wide array of activities represented on their Spectrum of Engagement, acknowledging the depth and breadth of engagement activities that are happening throughout a given community.
The national youth involvement movement has stagnated. For more than 20 years it has promoted almost the exact same approaches to addressing challenges are radically different today than ever before. Something has got to get different, and get that way rapidly.
I first became aware of the national effort to systematically involve youth throughout systems when I was 15. That year I was given a manual by the neighborhood Methodist church focused on youth involvement at church. I don’t remember too much about it, but I know that it highlighted different models of youth involvement and gave examples. That was 1990.
Ten years later I was hired into the national youth voice movement as a youth ambassador by the Points of Light Foundation, or POLF. At that point POLF had a high profile in that movement, sending folks around the country to promote the gospel of involving youth throughout society. That diminished in the years after, but the movement did not. Instead, throughout the 2000s more organizations than ever before sought to involve youth in decision-making, planning, evaluation, training, and advocacy. It was a powerful time. I logged a lot of these groups through my work in building The Freechild Project online database.
One of the feature technical assistance organizations, Youth On Board, contracted with me a few years ago to rewrite their primary manual about youth involvement, now called 15 Points to Successfully Involving Youth in Decision-Making. It was exciting to expose new action happening across the country focused on diversity in youth involvement, and show how deep the national movement had grown.
A lot of these efforts have been cut lately, and those that are left are generally slugging on the ropes. However, as much as I think this is a failure of politicians and movement builders to understand the necessity of youth involvement, I think it’s a failure of the movement itself to transform with the times.
Instead of adopting radical new approaches to engaging youth throughout society, most organizations promoting youth involvement stagnated through the last decade, and are now stuck precisely where they started.
Here are some examples of youth involvement that might be from 2001 or 2011, reflecting the inability of the movement to change with the times:
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?
The “golden mean” of the youth engagement movement has been seen as systemization for at least ten years, and I have been a proponent the entire time, at times leading that movement and at times following. Today I’m wondering if I have been on the wrong path.
Somewhere along the way I learned that the charismatic, energetic and enthusiastic youth worker wasn’t enough. I came to believe that those of us who have the ability to draw young people out of their reticence were somehow anamolous and inherently flawed: rather than having a “gift” or some type of special ability, we are marked with some “X” that acts as a blight for sustainably engaging children and youth, because one person being able to do something is inherently unsustainable.
I came to believe that it can’t be all about us, these workers who have this ability. Instead, it must be about transforming systems in order to realign organizational priorities to focus on youth engagement. I came to understand that these single individuals are inherently going to be the “work horses” of youth engagement; instead of focusing on meeting their needs, we must focus on the larger systems surrounding their work. This is partially what has driven me from spending my time on the single-user focus of the Freechild Project website to working within the Washington State Department of Health, this desire to change the systems that affect youth workers rather than support youth workers directly. Today is catching me wondering why.
There is a dearth of adults whom fit the criteria of being able to successfully engage young people. These people must be:
Authentically and genuinely committed to engaging young people
Humble and determined enough to actually learn directly from young people
Motivated and intentional in their professional and personal lives to sustain youth engagement
I never believed it was wrong or incorrect to be these ways; rather, I came to believe it was the systems these folks work in that need transformed to better sustain and nurture these traits, and to build and develop them within people who don’t already have them.
But all these years after researching and training, watching organizations wax and wane, and seeing systems change slowly disintegrate in the face of massive governmental budget reductions and foundation giving dissolve, I’m not so convinced that systems change is the way to go.
This is me considering where I’m at, where our movement is at, and where to go next. Let me know what you think.