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?!?