Youth-serving organizations juggle the needs of participants and their families, developing culturally responsive program goals, and achieving program outcomes that insure both positive impact on the community and continued funding. Often, organizations forget that the most important stakeholder/perspective is within their own programs: youth. By actively engaging youth in programming decisions, your organization will become more innovative, culturally responsive, and offer more impactful experiences for the youth it engages. Successfully leveraging youth voice to impact programming requires understanding of the current barriers that limit student involvement, effective planning and implementation of youth and adult collaboration, and continuous evaluation of the experience.
The steps below cover only the foundation of incorporating youth voice into programmatic decision-making. The rest is up to your organization!
Discovering your “why”
Organization leaders and program staff must discern the value of including youth voice in its planning process. Every organization and its staff will have their own unique reason. Encourage discussion amongst your team – the following questions can offer a starting point.
- Why is it important for our organization to engage youth in a more meaningful way?
- What are our current structures that prevent youth from impacting programmatic decision-making?
- What are immediate steps that can be taken to increase youth voice in decision-making?
- What are long term goals for youth engagement in decision-making?
- What resources are necessary to do this effectively?
Understanding the barriers that limit youth voice in decision-making
Assess where your organization currently stands. Deciding to incorporate youth voice into programming and organizational decisions is the first step to making your organization stronger. To do this effectively, it is necessary to do an inventory of the organizational and cultural barriers that prevent youth voice from impacting your programs/organization. Our organization has found that adultism is a major barrier that prevents program staff from offering youth the opportunity to impact major decisions. Adultism exists when adults assume that their experience and knowledge is more important than youth’s. Consider the popular phases, “children should be seen and not heard” and “you’ll understand when you’re older.” Adults, often unconsciously, diminish the experience and perspective of the youth they interact with. In order to create spaces for youth to offer their input and perspective on programs, organizations must first value the experience and perspective that youth offer. Think of youth as partners in the work. Youth and adults offer unique additions to the work and both should be valued.
Additional barriers include the difference between staff and student schedules. Consider when decisions are being made about program goals or curricula. Challenge your organization to adjust its schedule to offer opportunities for youth engagement.
You’ve decided to engage youth in your program planning process. Now what?
It’s okay to start small. Organizations should begin engaging youth in decision-making in a way that is realistic for its current capacity. Youth and adults can start a partnership by strategizing ways to address participant recruitment and retention or work together on more advanced projects like strategic planning of program outcomes.
Your planning process needs structure. Working collaboratively with youth for the first time can be daunting. Program staff should have an idea of programming resources, logistics, and the planning time commitment to fully incorporate youth suggestions before beginning the partnership. Determine expectations for the youth and adult partnership: how will youth and adults hold each other accountable for the work? Encourage adults and youth to openly share their expectations for the experience. Youth and adults should also discuss how they like to receive feedback. The goal is to create an environment in which youth and adults feel supported to create strong relationships and impactful programming.
You’ve finished your first collaborative planning process! Now what?
Congratulations! Your organization has taken the first crucial step to creating meaningful intergenerational partnerships. To develop best practices evaluate youth and staff’s experience of working together and the project they have created. Continue to build staff self-awareness of adultist practices and consider as an organization if it is possible to scale youth engagement in decision-making. Perhaps youth perspective is missing from participant recruitment or strategic planning? Celebrate lessons learned and continue to challenge your organization and youth participants to work as partners to strengthen professional and personal development opportunities for your community.
Alex Middleton is the Training and Curriculum Coordinator at BRIDGES USA, a youth leadership development nonprofit in Memphis, Tennessee. Over the last eight years BRIDGES has created strong youth and adult partnerships and youth-led programming, including CHANGE fellows, a group of middle and high school community organizers that design their own campaigns. Alex works with staff at her organization to increase youth and adult partnerships and has trained other youth serving organizations on the importance of youth perspective in programming decisions.