Including Youth Leadership in Community Change Efforts

Posted November 20, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young people holding hands

Youth and young adults must be giv­en oppor­tu­ni­ties to shape pro­grams and ini­tia­tives that are meant to improve com­mu­ni­ties and dri­ve social change, said young lead­ers at a train­ing ses­sion on Tues­day for part­ners imple­ment­ing the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Evidence2Success™ framework.

When solic­it­ing young people’s part­ner­ship, old­er adults who work on such ini­tia­tives should be pre­pared to share pow­er with youth and take their ideas and rec­om­men­da­tions seri­ous­ly, the young speak­ers said. Get to know the youth and treat them as your equal,” said Nixon Tilme, age 16, a youth leader with Pow­er U in Mia­mi, a Casey partner.

The com­ments came dur­ing a pan­el dis­cus­sion in which four youth lead­ers shared their expe­ri­ences work­ing on com­mu­ni­ty change efforts and offered rec­om­men­da­tions for Evidence2Succes part­ners on how they can more effec­tive­ly include young people’s insights and ideas in their work.

Reflec­tions on expe­ri­ences, challenges

The youth not­ed chal­lenges they’ve expe­ri­enced when part­ner­ing on com­mu­ni­ty change efforts. Old­er adults can be made uncom­fort­able when youth pro­vide sub­stan­tive feed­back or push back on ideas or approach­es, said Bec­ca Folkes-Lal­lo, age 20, who advis­es a youth board for BRIDGES USA, an Evidence2Success part­ner in Mem­phis, Tenn.

But to Folkes-Lal­lo, a healthy dia­logue means that youth can dis­agree with old­er adults. That means the young peo­ple you’re work­ing with are empow­ered to chal­lenge you, which is what we want to see,” she said.

Even when youth are includ­ed in com­mu­ni­ty change efforts, their ideas and insights aren’t always treat­ed equal­ly to those of old­er adults, said Zahra Chowd­hury, age 16, a youth orga­niz­er with BRIDGES USA. Often­times, well-inten­tioned adults can take up more space than they real­ize because we grow up in a soci­ety that isn’t used to hav­ing youth as equal part­ners,” Chowd­hury said. So, the chal­lenge is chang­ing that mindset.”

Rec­om­men­da­tions for part­ner­ing with youth

For pro­grams to ful­ly include youth in deci­sion-mak­ing, the speak­ers recommended:

  • Give youth oppor­tu­ni­ties to offer insights and opin­ions. Encour­age young peo­ple to pro­vide com­ments and share ideas — and treat them as equal­ly impor­tant as those shared by old­er adults. As Ebony Pope, age 15, a youth leader with Pow­er U, put it: If you want me in this space, you have to lis­ten to me. We have to come to a partnership.”
  • Tell young peo­ple how their ideas will be incor­po­rat­ed in the work. Explain how young people’s rec­om­men­da­tions will be includ­ed in ini­tia­tives and lay out spe­cif­ic steps for how that inclu­sion will work, Folkes-Lal­lo recommended.
  • Val­i­date and respect that youth have unique view­points and expe­ri­ences. Under­stand that young peo­ple may see cer­tain events or pro­pos­als dif­fer­ent­ly from old­er adults based on their expe­ri­ences — and these per­spec­tives are valu­able. Just because the per­son is younger, it doesn’t defeat how much they know,” Pope said.
  • Hold old­er adults account­able for treat­ing youth equi­tably. Chowd­hury not­ed that BRIDGES USA asks that part­ners acknowl­edge a writ­ten agree­ment that states that old­er adults will com­mit to treat­ing youth respect­ful­ly, sup­port their ideas and make space” for them to share insights. Youth can cite the doc­u­ment if old­er adults don’t live up to their com­mit­ments, Chowd­hury said.
  • Engage youth from the begin­ning. Include youth as part­ners from the plan­ning phase of an ini­tia­tive all the way through imple­men­ta­tion. Old­er adults should not bring in youth at the end of the process when key deci­sions have already been made, Folkes-Lal­lo said.

Rec­og­niz­ing the impor­tance of youth engagement

Chowd­hury said she thinks more peo­ple are real­iz­ing that youth have impor­tant per­spec­tives to offer — espe­cial­ly after young peo­ple turned out big in this summer’s his­toric protests for racial jus­tice. I think that peo­ple are final­ly able to acknowl­edge youth as a true force of pow­er in com­mu­ni­ties,” she said.

The Casey Foun­da­tion has made numer­ous invest­ments to fos­ter young lead­er­ship — includ­ing through train­ing pro­grams and recent sup­port for youth advo­ca­cy for racial equi­ty and for aid need­ed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We see youth as vital part­ners in our work in com­mu­ni­ties,” says Traci Cal­len­der, a senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foun­da­tion. We’re excit­ed to see young peo­ple step­ping up to tell us what they need in order to be full part­ners and we plan to con­tin­ue work­ing with orga­ni­za­tions in com­mu­ni­ties to effec­tive­ly incor­po­rate youth voice in our efforts.”

See a Casey report about effec­tive­ly part­ner­ing with young people

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