Youth Conferences

Youth conferences are a peculiar thing. When they are done well, they are done really well. When they are otherwise, well, they usually stink.

Case in point: On a recent November saturday in San Jose, California, more than 1300 girls attended a day-long young women’s empowerment conference hosted by Girls for a Change. There were workshops, performances, and speakers who amazed and enthralled every single young woman there – or almost all of them. That’s powerful – especially because the conference had a purpose that moved these young women towards being powerful social change agents. Gail Cockburn wrote a Guide to Meaningful Youth Participation in International Conferences [PDF] that I think has valuable lessons for all kinds of conferences – a lot of them echoed in Girls for a Change’s conference.

This coming Saturday I’m speaking and putting on a workshop at the first-ever Washington State Youth Leadership Conference, hosted north of Seattle in Everett. There will be a hodge-podge of presenters and topics, all of them loosely connected under the banner of “youth leadership.” The funny thing about youth conferences though, is that despite their temporary nature, the gathering relies equally on content and participants. If the topic and workshops and great, and the youth only come because they have to, its an uphill slug to get the energy and passion needed for successful gatherings.

In 2003 I spoke in São Paulo, Brazil, at a youth conference hosted by the United Nations Development Programme. It was a fascinating event exploring the roles of youth throughout Brazil that was primarily for youth and about youth – but almost entirely led by adults. The audience was genuinely receptive! I know young people aren’t so simplistic that that should be amazing; the amazing part is that someone had the vision to put together such a high-level of content for youth.

After attending the National Service Learning Conference for 5 years in a row, I have avoided the last few years because of the same critique – content never moved beyond elementary or introductory, whether about service learning practice, elements, youth voice, or anything.

Recently, I’ve been helping my friend Sharif Abdelhamid plan a youth conference in Denver for Global Youth Service Day next year. Wish him luck as he navigates a city, multiple agendas, and powerful outcomes for every youth involved – and watch for my report in April.

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