How Organizations Can Foster Youth Engagement

Freechild Project adult ally teaching youth media making skills

For almost 20 years, the Freechild Institute has been training and consulting youth-serving organizations about youth + social change, including youth engagement and youth voice. We have learned a lot, including how organizations can engage youth.

Steps to Foster Systems for Youth Engagement

This graphic shows some of the elements, types and functions of systems for youth engagement throughout our society.

Here are the steps to transform and sustain organizational youth engagement.

1. Name a Youth + Social Change Director.

Every organization committed to youth + social change should have a youth engagement director. This individual should be or become an expert on youth engagement, youth voice and young + social change who is dedicated to the continued strengthening of their organization’s youth engagement training, programs and policies. 

2. Identify Champions for Youth + Social Change.

Freechild designates every youth-serving adult in our projects and activities as champions for youth + social change. After they are trained in youth + social change, they are expected to implement youth engagement approaches, strategies, policies, programs, training, assessment and communications.

3. Build Youth Organizations.

All aspects of organizations and programs fostering youth + social change should engage young people directly. Youth are encouraged to attend all organizational activities, including decision-making and leadership activities, fundraising, evaluation and grant-reporting activities, and more. Nothing about youth without youth is for youth, and everything within youth-serving organizations should be for youth. Do not tokenize, do not minimize and do not limit; instead, open doors, build capacity and sustain involvement. Develop strategic plans, name practical objectives, develop genuine goals, and route deliberate activities to get there. Assign real money, real people and pragmatic resources to get it done. Build your organizations and programs.

4. Evolve the Abilities of Youth.

The knowledge, skills and abilities of young people are always evolving, expanding and becoming bigger, brighter and more capable than ever before. This is youth + social change happening, in real time! Within youth-serving organizations, the ways we teach, train, work with and work for young people need to reflect this evolution. We need to expand our capacities by expanding their capacities, and continue to evolve, develop, criticize and redevelop our programs and activities in ways that reflect these evolving capacities of young people. Seeing and treating youth as individuals and as members, not beneficiaries, is essential to this. Of course, its also essential to see young people as resources to engage, not problems to be solved. This happens in formal and informal ways, and the importance of this should never be minimized or limited.

5. Evolve the Abilities of Adults.

In almost all of our well-meaning organizations, we rely on young people seeing adults as resources for themselves. Assuming that simply showing up is enough to gain their trust and earn their respect, in times past we might have just did the intake and called it good. Right now, we need to evolve the abilities of adults to foster youth + social change because youth today are unlike any generation of youth ever before. Intentionally teach adults how to engage young people in social change in the specific environments, cultures and communities where they are working. Directly build the abilities of adults how to sustain the interest and change the world with youth as partners, everywhere, all of the time.

6. Fight Adultism Actively.

Safeguard against adultism in everything you do, everywhere, all the time. Don’t just fight it, don’t just challenge, but create purposeful processes, procedures and ways to actually prevent adultism from happening. All adults must respect all young people in every way without discriminating against them. Every young person needs to learn what adultism is, how it affects them and how they can stop it.

7. Establish the Rule of Two.

The rule of two is that every school, nonprofit, government program and other activity in every community needs to assign and ensure that every young person is directly, consistently and meaningfully connected to at least one adult within their activities. Freechild also calls this Mutual Mentorship, meaning that the rule of two actively breaks down the typical hierarchal command and control youth work relationship and replaces it with learning opportunities for youth and adults together, as partners and allies. Within these relationships, youth + social change needs to be made obvious and overt, and needs to be diligently and substantially maintained in any form, whether in-person or online.

8. Report, Respond, Celebrate and Criticize.

Within every any activity fostering youth + social change, policies need to assure accountability from adults to young people and the organization to the broader community through prompt reporting, practical responses, obvious celebrations and open critical thinking about any youth-serving program. The intention here is to establish, maintain and sustain a mutual space for interactive, applicable democratic action and ideas for young people and adults to participate in, learn from, built open and share with the world they live in every day.

Sustaining Youth + Social Change

This is a graphic of the Freechild Institute youth engagement mapping tool.
This is a graphic of the Freechild Institute youth engagement mapping tool.

The abilities of organizations to sustain youth + social change is directly connected to how well they foster and support young people. While its essential to engage adults in meaningful ways, when youth + social change happens young people are the focus in powerful, positive and meaningful ways throughout. However, the ultimate starting point is to plan from the end you want to see. So begin by planning for youth + social change, and plan backwards to the point where you’re at right now. The old adage is true: “The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift and that’s why its called the present.”

Be where you’re at and do what you can do.

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