Puddles of Youth Engagement


Changing our minds is necessary for successful youth engagement in schools and communities. Coming to understand the absolute dire necessity for youth engagement and understanding the inherent ethical demands therein is essential for everyone. This is particularly true for adults who work with and for young people everyday, including parents, teachers, youth workers, politicians, and others.


However, this strong personal transformation isn’t systematic or necessarily sustainable. Despite many well-meaning adults’ interest in engaging young people, they don’t have reliable structural and cultural supports within their environments to ensure their efforts have the impact they could or should have. Instead, students leave the classroom of one well-intended teacher only to face six others throughout the day where teachers aren’t committed to student/adult partnerships. Or the homeless youth voice project that empowered those youth has no follow-up once those youth have secure places to live, and so on.

The reality of these situations is that we have little puddles of youth engagement in the world today. There are some communities where those puddles for ponds, and only a couple where those ponds forms lakes. However, there are oceans of separation between these adult allies of children and youth, and we need something more.

Moving Away from Puddles and towards Water Cycles

I’ve written about this and studied systems supporting youth voice. Here are the main elements I’ve found consistently arise.

  1. Organizations Have Policy and Practice. There are ways to carry out the policies that support the objectives of goals of Youth Voice 
  2. Data Driven Practice. Data related to Youth Voice as it affects the young people involved, their peers, adult allies, and the larger community is regularly collected. 
  3. Budget Supports Action. Budgets include line items that support the implementation of Youth Voice activities. 
  4. New Knowledge is Fostered. Regular training orients new youth participants and adults and strengthens existing youth and adult allies’ skills, knowledge and commitment to Youth Voice. 
  5. Accountable Action at the Grassroots. Policies supporting Youth Voice activities have been published in a document available to youth, adult allies, youth workers, government officials, politicians and families. 
  6. Accountable Action at the Treetops. The Youth Voice coordinator reports to a high-level administrator and the position is incorporated into the organizational chart. 
  7. Change is Temporary; Support is Permanent. The Youth Voice program has survived a significant change of leadership among youth, adult allies and within the group, organization and/or community. 
  8. Community Informed Action. Other groups, organizations and/or communities are assisted in designing, implementing, sustaining and/or evaluating their Youth Voice activities through conferences, workshops and/or local outreach. 
  9. Policies and Practices are Shared and Compared. Organizations, groups, and communities actively “swap notes” about policies and practices in order to strengthen self-perception and grow beyond limited views. 
  10. Networks and Coalitions are Formed. Like-minded individuals and organizations, including youth and adult allies, form networks for support and coalitions for advocacy. Tangible action, practical outcomes, and meaningful activities form and reform the bonds that unite them. 

There are some resources out there that address systemitizing youth voice. One is a report about the funding practices and outcomes of a Bay Area, California, foundation focused on youth engagement. Another is a database of national youth policies from around the world compiled by a UNESCO initiative called Plan With Youth. The last one I’ll include here is the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing’s 2010 Youth Organizing Field Scan. All of these are incomplete resources that don’t necessarily support wide-ranging strategies to move beyond isolation, insolarization, polarization, or silo-ing among youth voice initiatives. However, they move closer than others.
Please share your resource or idea in the comments section, and let me know what you think of these puddles of engagement!

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