Youth involvement can benefit organizations and their programs as well as the youth themselves. Programs that are developed in partnership with youth are more likely to be effective at engaging the population and, therefore, to have a greater impact. Involving youth as partners in making decisions that affect them increases the likelihood that the decisions will be accepted, adopted, and become part of their everyday lives. In addition, empowering youth to identify and respond to community needs helps them become empathetic, reflective individuals, setting them on a course to potentially continue this important work in their future careers. Meaningful youth engagement views youth as equal partners with adults in the decision-making process. Programs and activities are developed with youth, rather than for youth. In this kind of equal partnership, both adults and young people need to be fully engaged, open to change in how things are done, and share a unified vision for the partnership.
Here are some suggested steps to consider when trying to engage young people and ensure the experience is meaningful for the youth as well as the program.
There are many ways youth can be involved in organizational decision-making structures and program development. Involving youth from the beginning of a project is ideal; below are suggestions of where youth can be involved.
An example of needs assessment is the USDA’s GIS project, through which youth identified resources in their community that were uploaded into a community-wide map. The map was then used to inform community leaders about existing gaps and challenges. Learn more about Youth Mapping.
Youth provide an excellent source of human and social capital within communities. Their networks consist of their peers as well as family members and adult friends who have access to local resources. Several federally funded programs are soliciting youth leadership in order to achieve more meaningful results. These programs are tapping into the expertise of young people, relying on them to help determine the needs of their community.
The National 4-H Council’s Engaging Youth, Serving Communities project requires adults to work with youth to organize community forums. The forums can be facilitated in partnership or solely by youth to discuss the needs of the community and how to devise a plan to address them.
Youth can help create activities that will be of particular interest to their peers. Many of them are familiar with age appropriate team building exercises and activities that can be incorporated.
Youth should have a lead role in promoting and presenting information that they have created and/or participated in from the beginning. This provides them with ownership of their efforts. They can also identify locations (e.g., libraries, schools, and recreational centers) that are frequented by potential participants.
Communities are taking the voice of youth more seriously. In rural and urban areas alike, you can find youth on such governing bodies as library councils, parks and recreations boards, school boards and even city councils. Many of these give youth full voting privileges. Although this may not be allowed by some organizations, youth can still be given a chance to be heard as a representative of the community in which they live.
Organizations and agencies are concerned about retaining youth within their programs. Before selecting a particular curriculum to use with a target audience, it may be advantageous to have youth assist in reviewing a curriculum or training materials to determine if it will be appropriate for a specific age group.
Youth can assist in training adults who are interested in learning about changing dynamics. Youth can share what is of interest to youth in general, conduct a seminar on the relevance and use of web-based social networking, or serve on a panel to talk about what it takes to engage youth of today.
Young people make excellent data collectors. As they assist in tasks such as conducting interviews, taking photos, and reviewing feedback from surveys, they are also developing analytical skills that can serve them well in other roles.
Youth can brainstorm to create survey questions with adults. Once a draft of the survey is completed, youth can fill out the instrument, and then provide feedback on what items were clear and unclear.
Soliciting honest feedback from youth will help build methods into the evaluation process that can strengthen a program or project. Youth can provide insight on what outcomes they would like to see as a result of program efforts.
Youth can take photographs of the final results of project work, administer surveys, conduct structured interviews, or participate in focus groups.
With the assistance of adults, youth can learn how to enter data into software programs, read through data to sort out common themes, and help with interpreting comments, reactions, and behaviors generated by participants. A guide (e.g., observation protocol) describing what to look for during the analysis may be helpful.
Once youth have had a role in all levels of a program, most are more than willing to share the results of their hard work. Giving them the opportunity to share what a difference the experience has made in their lives will also resonate with the audience. This is very important if youth are presenting information to local leaders who can serve as potential partners and also help make a difference in the community.
Assess your organization’s readiness to engage young people and develop a plan to involve youth.
This resource focuses on how communities can shift from a problem-focused approach to serving youth to a community-youth involvement model that captures the talents, abilities, and worth of youth.
This assessment tool help users assess their program’s ability to address the 21 elements of youth development, and then make informed decisions regarding future program directions.
This supplement to the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice (November 2006) presents and discusses youth development approaches in the context of public health programs. The purpose of the supplement is to acquaint public health practitioners with the basic concepts of youth development and to provide guidance about how to put them into practice.
The Center for Collaborative Action Research links educators, researchers, and community members with the goal of creating deep understanding of educational problems in the school context and to encourage evidence-based reasoning to solve these problems.
To learn more, check out our youth topic page on positive youth development.