I first became aware of the national effort to systematically involve youth throughout systems when I was 15. That year I was given a manual by the neighborhood Methodist church focused on youth involvement at church. I don’t remember too much about it, but I know that it highlighted different models of youth involvement and gave examples. That was 1990.
Ten years later I was hired into the national youth voice movement as a youth ambassador by the Points of Light Foundation, or POLF. At that point POLF had a high profile in that movement, sending folks around the country to promote the gospel of involving youth throughout society. That diminished in the years after, but the movement did not. Instead, throughout the 2000s more organizations than ever before sought to involve youth in decision-making, planning, evaluation, training, and advocacy. It was a powerful time. I logged a lot of these groups through my work in building The Freechild Project online database.
One of the feature technical assistance organizations, Youth On Board, contracted with me a few years ago to rewrite their primary manual about youth involvement, now called 15 Points to Successfully Involving Youth in Decision-Making. It was exciting to expose new action happening across the country focused on diversity in youth involvement, and show how deep the national movement had grown.
A lot of these efforts have been cut lately, and those that are left are generally slugging on the ropes. However, as much as I think this is a failure of politicians and movement builders to understand the necessity of youth involvement, I think it’s a failure of the movement itself to transform with the times.
Instead of adopting radical new approaches to engaging youth throughout society, most organizations promoting youth involvement stagnated through the last decade, and are now stuck precisely where they started.
Here are some examples of youth involvement that might be from 2001 or 2011, reflecting the inability of the movement to change with the times:
- Manchester, CT Youth Commission
- Be The Catalyst is an anti-tobacco and anti-obesity program in MN that has a youth board member.
- The Aspen Institute Center for Native American Youth has three youth board members.
- The Youth Leadership Institute maintains regular positions for youth board members.
- The United Way of Fox Cities (Menasha, WI) has a youth board.
- The Forum for Youth Investment, whose youth involvement publication called “Building Effective Youth Councils“, doesn’t address any type of full-voting rights for youth in policy-making.
Those are all typical youth board member positions. Here are some exceptional ones:
- The California Board of Education has a full-voting, regular student member of their board. (Read an article I wrote about student school board membership.)
- The State Farm Youth Advisory Board gives away a ton of money every year.
Other places to look for exceptional examples of fully participating youth board members include city governments, and cities like Hampton, Virginia.
We need new approaches that re-envision the roles of young people throughout society. Youth involvement has stagnated.