Its important to remember that words have power. Whether we’re talking with children, youth or adults, we should carefully consider the meanings, definitions and outcomes of the language we’re using. This is especially true of youth engagement.
While teaching schools and nonprofits about youth engagement over the years, I’ve found its especially important to make sure people understand the definitions of three terms in particular: Youth engagement, Youth voice, and Youth/adult partnerships.
- Youth Voice—Any expression of any young person about anything, anywhere, ever.
- Youth Engagement—The sustain connections in the lives of young people.
- Youth/Adult Partnerships—Intentional relationships that embody mutual respect, trust, communication and meaningful involvement.
I wrote these definitions after years of research and practice in communities across the US, Canada and beyond. They matter because they can set a baseline expectation for the experiences of young people and adults who are involved in activities meant to reflect them, and to the community beyond.
You might notice that each definition is vague or ambiguous. That’s intentional. In so much of this work, adults carve out the space, activities and outcomes that are meant to reflect these terms. I find that ironic, if only because each term relates to personal agency; how can we promote personal agency when we’re doing things for youth, like telling them how to express their voices, what to connect with and whether they are in partnerships? I believe its essential for there to be a lot of room on the bottom for the activities, issues and outcomes youth find important. As responsible and responsive adults, there is a time and place to step aside, and defining the implementation of youth voice, the parameters of youth engagement and the look of youth/adult partnerships may be that essential time and place.
I hope you’ll leave me a note in the comments section below and let me know what YOU think!
- Youth Voice Tip Sheet for The Freechild Project
- Youth Voice in Schools for SoundOut
- Youth/Adult Partnerships for The Freechild Project