“Youth Voice” Isn’t Enough to Stop Youth Disengagement

Youth voice is not enough. Adults working to build communities with young people have learned that it is important to engage youth as self-advocates and peer teachers, community culture monitors, and youth organization cheerleaders. As youth organizations become more savvy, more youth are being effectively taught to challenge themselves, working with their peers to create safe and supportive environments for all people.

However, after more than 15 years of national interest in youth voice, many communities are still struggling to effectively address the problem of youth disengagement. We have to consider the reality of youth disengagement as a form of youth voice and the role of youth/adult partnerships in challenging youth disengagement. But we also have to acknowledge that youth voice is not enough.

Most people, young and old, value action. From our hunter/gatherer roots to present, there is often nothing more important to us than getting things done. Somewhere along the way, though, society decided that the loudest or most eloquent person in the group should be given a place to talk separate from everyone else. From Socrates to Abraham Lincoln, we have created pedestals and mantles on which we place these individuals, and we call that place “leadership.” Many youth organizations perpetuate that idea.

The challenge with many organizations’ conceptions of youth voice is that it is automatically associated with this traditional youth leadership model: Young leaders are nurtured to become adult leaders, and in many ways we carry forward the notion that youth leadership is only for certain youth.

Occasionally, well-meaning adults will try to engage nontraditional youth leaders in traditional youth leadership activities. When those experiences do not work out, adults feel justified shrugging their shoulders and simply give up on nontraditional youth leaders. However, when this reality is coupled with our hunter/gatherer roots, we can see why youth voice is not enough: Adults working with nontraditional youth leaders in “failed” youth leadership opportunities are generally taught to sit passively and wait for their turn to speak up. Despite that, the nontraditional youth leaders take action, whether it works for adults or not. This is when youth voice becomes inconvenient.

Effective social change requires direct action. It is important that everyone working for social change sees youth as a piece of that action but not the whole pie. My experience working with communities across the country and research on youth voice has shown me that there is a five-part process for meaningfully involving all partners. Following is an explanation of how my cycle of engagement can be used to engage nontraditional youth leaders.

Part 1: Listen to all youth. Families, counselors, and other adults have a direct stake in the well-being of our communities. However, the most important partner is often the least engaged: connecting all youth as partners and hearing their voices, at par with other partners including traditional youth leaders, is essential. Adults must hear youth experiences with injustice; their ideas about social change; their wisdom about creating safe and supportive communities; and their beliefs about learning, teaching, and leadership in general. These experiences and ideas and their wisdom are essential to effectively engaging not only youth, but also all other partners. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that educators must learn to “speak by listening;” social change opens the door for adults to demonstrate to nontraditional and traditional youth leaders that they are our partners.

Part 2: Validate perspectives. The historical structures of communities require adults to give permission to youth. In the old “youth empowerment” concept this meant always saying yes. Today things are different. We know that validation does not always mean saying “yes.” Instead, it is important to sometimes say “no” or “maybe,” and always to ask more questions. Inquiry is acknowledgment, and it builds relationships and allows adults to connect with young people across the board.

Part 3: Authorize change. Sometimes the straightest path to creating change is the one that looks wiggly. To authorize youth is to give them permission to tell their own stories through positions and education. They need the education and the positions that will allow them to effectively change the world.

Part 4: Take action. Young people are not the only partners who require action. With demanding modern schedules adults want to hear more than just words too—they want to do something. However, one of the points of this cycle is that action does not happen in a vacuum; instead, it has to have context. The other parts of this cycle provide that framing. Don’t take action without the other parts.

Part 5: Reflect on learning. Reflection allows all partners, including young people, to look back on what they have done, make meaning from it, and apply what they have learned to the next rotation of the cycle. An easy framework for reflection is

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what: What happened?
  • So what was the point of that?
  • Now what do we do with what we have learned?

Keep in mind that these different parts are a cycle though, so as they come around to completion, we use our reflections on learning to re-inform the process of listening to partners.

Social change requires more than youth voice: it needs action. The Cycle of Engagement is one tool in the Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit that can engage young people and adults as partners in creating a whole new world. Let’s use it together.



CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360) 489-9680.


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