I have been talking with teachers and youth workers for the last 10 years about youth involvement. We’ve talked about classrooms, after-school programs, boards of directors, city councils, research projects, university classes… all kinds of different places. Somewhere along the way I was introduced to the notion of engagement as opposed to involvement. I was challenged to differentiate between the two, and after reading the research and literature I came away with a pretty clear picture. Here are my definitions:
Youth engagement is a personal response to surrounding stimulus.
Youth involvement is any attempt to promote engagement through systemic efforts.
So you can see that in my book one leads to the next. For instance, we might strive to write a classroom lesson plan that engages students in water quality issues by appealing to the effect of water on their health, the health of their families, and their community’s economic livelihood. In order to engage them, though, we involve youth in writing the curriculum, facilitating activities and evaluating the class afterwards. In a youth program that might take the form of wanting to engage youth in caring about the elders in their neighborhood. We do that by involving them in an oral history project.
I think clarifying these terms helps identify how different elements of this conversation play into the picture. For instance, we can see that youth engagement, as the more nebulous term, captures the more cultural elements of this conversation, including:
In turn, youth involvement becomes the more concrete, structural effort. For instance:
All of these provide avenues for youth involvement. This framework can help us identify how and where we concentrate our efforts. If you are in an organization where you personally want to involve youth but the organization itself seems highly averse to the idea, perhaps you start with focusing on youth engagement. This would include doing a cultural assessment of your organization, either through a survey or focus group, and to really examine why your organization should reach out to youth. Conversely, if the people in your organization seem vested in the notion of youth engagement, perhaps its time to start building infrastructure to foster sustained youth involvement.
Either way, its important to delineate the differences in these essential elements of effect youth programs. Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions, suggestions, ideas or other responses.