Strategies for Youth Engagement

Posted January 24, 2024
A young Black woman and an older Black woman sit together as they discuss a project.

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion is com­mit­ted to part­ner­ing with young peo­ple to devel­op solu­tions to the issues that affect their lives. The Foun­da­tion’s work ben­e­fits from these fresh per­spec­tives, and youth gain impor­tant lead­er­ship expe­ri­ence through the process. But how and when should youth engage­ment hap­pen? And when it does, what are effec­tive, thought­ful ways to approach engag­ing young peo­ple in an organization’s work, espe­cial­ly one that does not direct­ly serve youth?

To answer those ques­tions, the Foun­da­tion enlist­ed part­ners and young peo­ple to help iden­ti­fy the youth engage­ment meth­ods that have suc­cess­ful­ly advanced its goals. Our find­ings: There is not one right approach to youth engage­ment but a con­tin­u­um of strate­gies that can help lead­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers part­ner with young peo­ple in their efforts.

The Foun­da­tion adopt­ed a con­tin­u­um based on exam­ples in the field, includ­ing a 2021 Casey Foun­da­tion-fund­ed report from UCLA’s Cen­ter for the Devel­op­ing Ado­les­cent. It also con­sid­ered the expe­ri­ences of its Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive™ — a mul­ti-decade effort that employs authen­tic youth engage­ment to advance poli­cies and prac­tices in ser­vice of young peo­ple tran­si­tion­ing from fos­ter care. The range of strate­gies can help orga­ni­za­tions assess when youth engage­ment makes sense, the var­i­ous forms it can take — includ­ing poten­tial activ­i­ties for staff and young peo­ple — and the fea­si­bil­i­ty, ben­e­fits and chal­lenges of each.

Decid­ing When and How to Engage Young People

With so many ways to approach youth engage­ment, it’s impor­tant to under­stand what the options are and that there’s not just one,” said Lau­ra Speer, the Casey Foundation’s direc­tor of strat­e­gy. It’s impor­tant to start by iden­ti­fy­ing the approach that fits the work at hand then fol­low­ing it con­sis­tent­ly in a way that sets young peo­ple up for mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tions, inter­ac­tions and suc­cess in their work with you.”

The Foundation’s iter­a­tion of the con­tin­u­um begins with a deci­sion about whether a giv­en project or strat­e­gy would ben­e­fit from youth engage­ment, and whether that area of work allows for the prepa­ra­tion, input and con­sul­ta­tion that thought­ful youth engage­ment requires. Some aspects of an organization’s work — such as admin­is­tra­tive deci­sions or pro­gram activ­i­ties with a tight time­line — may not be appro­pri­ate areas for youth engagement.

Five Ways Orga­ni­za­tions Can Engage Youth

Once an orga­ni­za­tion has decid­ed it’s appro­pri­ate to engage youth, the con­tin­u­um offers five lev­els of engage­ment to consider.

Inform

Orga­ni­za­tions inform young peo­ple about planned activ­i­ties or strate­gies and col­lect their feed­back, but staff man­age the project and exe­cute the work. Staff gain infor­ma­tion that can strength­en solu­tions and avoid blind spots. Youth can pre­view infor­ma­tion but have a lim­it­ed abil­i­ty to inform and shape projects or outcomes.

Con­sult

Staff set project bound­aries, man­age project design and devel­op­ment and exe­cute the work. Young peo­ple are asked for high-lev­el input once the strat­e­gy, pol­i­cy or pro­gram is par­tial­ly devel­oped. This approach gives staff help­ful infor­ma­tion to craft strong solu­tions. Young peo­ple can con­tribute to plan­ning and prob­lem solv­ing, though hav­ing less con­trol may lead to incon­sis­tent participation.

Involve

As with the Con­sult approach, staff man­age the design and devel­op­ment of projects and are respon­si­ble for exe­cut­ing the work. How­ev­er, this lev­el of engage­ment involves young peo­ple at the onset, and they con­tribute con­sis­tent­ly and mean­ing­ful­ly through­out the process. This gives youth the chance to pro­vide sub­stan­tial input and engage with staff more effectively.

Col­lab­o­rate

Staff col­lab­o­rate ful­ly with young peo­ple on the design and devel­op­ment process, agree­ing on expect­ed results, project tim­ing and bound­aries. Staff and youth share respon­si­bil­i­ty for exe­cut­ing the work and young peo­ple build lead­er­ship skills. This approach can take a lot of time, and roles and author­i­ty can some­times blur.

Youth-Led

After staff and young peo­ple work togeth­er to estab­lish antic­i­pat­ed results, project tim­ing and bound­aries, youth dri­ve the project and must exe­cute the work. Youth-led work is only fea­si­ble when young peo­ple have deci­sion-mak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty in all aspects of plan­ning, design and implementation.

Teams may use dif­fer­ent youth engage­ment strate­gies at dif­fer­ent phas­es of work. For exam­ple, youth may col­lab­o­rate with staff at the start of a project and be con­sult­ed later.

Addi­tion­al Youth Engage­ment Resources

Learn more about effec­tive­ly engag­ing youth with these resources:

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