Keys to Youth Voice

The Freechild Institute Youth Voice Toolkit
Freechild Keys to Youth Voice

As Youth Voice becomes more accepted throughout our communities, there are forces that will try to deceive, tokenize, or otherwise manipulate young people. While youth are often concerned with “keeping it real,” a growing number of people are calling for authentic Youth Voice. Following are important points to keep in mind.

Key 1: Don’t fool the youth.

The old saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time” applies to young people, too. Using Youth Voice as a “rubber stamp” or as a “decoration” for adult actions is not acceptable to many young people or adults. Youth Voice activities should always avoid manipulating or tokenizing young people. Engage as many young people as meaningfully in as many functions of a project as possible. While it seems daunting, there are several ways that activities can be equitably led by young people.

Key 2: Work with youth – not for youth.

Don’t do for children and youth what they can do with you. Engage, encourage, and empower young people to take appropriate, purposeful, effective, and sustainable leadership for their own activities by providing training and coaching throughout every activity. Work to be an active, engaged ally to young people every time you can – not just when it is convenient. Children and youth need critical coaches throughout their lives, not just when they are in your class or program. Recognize the youth you work with throughout your community.

Key 3: Make having fun powerful.

The days of “pizza box youth engagement” are over. You can’t just throw a bunch of “fun food” into a room and expect young people to come and learn something meaningful. If the goal is recreation, then have young people plan the activity, lead it, and reflect on it afterwards. But why offer just recreation? Combine fun and learning, and change a young person’s life. Use active learning techniques throughout your program or class. Young people have diverse learning styles that can powerfully engage them in your program.

Key 4: Embrace change.

So you wanted to paint a mural in the park, but couldn’t get the funding. Along the way you learned about community history, recreation funding, gathering community donations, and planning a project. What was the greater lesson here – that you can’t just do anything you want to anytime you want to, or that you learned about the process for neighborhood change that you can use throughout the rest of your life? Plan for setbacks and be ready to find the benefits to any challenges. Be adaptable. Planning today is not as rigid as it used to be, and young people today are more flexible than ever. Teach the benefits of change by “going with the flow” and striving to be calm in the center of chaos.

Key 5: Don’t talk about “youth problems” anymore.

Young people are part of larger communities, and when they have a problem, their communities have a problem. Adults must quit referring to “youth violence” or “childhood obesity” as if youth and children are the only people in our society that are violent or obese. Community problems should be addressed by communities, and not foisted on the shoulders young people working alone. Encourage young people to critically reflect on their experiences throughout their community. By examining media, attitudes, and the structures around them young people can connect with broad struggles for social change throughout their communities.

Key 6: Teach youth about adultism when they are young.

When youth say demeaning things about other young people they are reflecting society’s larger perspectives towards youth, as well as their own opinions. Sometimes youth workers and teachers dismiss these comments with statements like, “It’s just a phase,” or “Don’t worry about it now – now’s for having fun!” While this may be well-meaning, the attitudes represented by these comments may be hurting the people Youth Voice seeks to empower. Examine everyday prejudice and uncover the bias against youth among youth. Challenge discrimination against children and youth in front of children and youth, as well as separately. By being a responsible advocate for Youth Voice you can illustrate the practice and possibilities of being an active ally to young people. Call out adults and young people who discriminate against children and youth. Challenge youth to identify and explore their own biases against their peers. Model anti-adultism perspectives towards young people whenever possible.

Key 7: Acknowledge young people in significant ways.

Patting someone on the back or giving them a certificate can only go so far. Despite adults’ outward expressions of support for Youth Voice, young people sometimes have very little actual authentic support from adults. The activities where Youth Voice is amplified can provide a lens to examine that reality. There are many ways to show authentic commitment to Youth Voice. A school might give students credit for participating in Youth Voice activities; organizations might provide all youth a cash stipend, and; individual adult allies may give young people letters of support, encouragement, and acknowledgement as they move along in life. Those are all tangible ways to show real dedication to engaging young people.

Key 8: Engage young people in something greater than themselves.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that living nonviolence requires us to, “rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” When applied to Youth Voice this means that simply encouraging or allowing young people to advocate for themselves is not enough. Responsible adults who are committed to authentic Youth Voice must seek to engage young people throughout our communities in issues affecting others. This way young people can see more than their own self-interest, actually becoming whole-community members. Recognizing the broad influences in the lives of children and youth is important; helping them identify allies throughout those different areas is vital, as well. Make community mapping, outside speakers, and field trips throughout your community a part of your program.



Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can help support youth voice in your community or organization, contact us.

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