Youth in crisis are young people who face imbalanced challenges due to circumstances beyond their control. Through the concern of international, national, state and local governments around the world, the voices of these youth are being engaged like never before. Few people are talking about how that happens though.
My Own Experience
As a child, I experienced routine homelessness as my family constantly moved to escape my dad’s demons of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder. When I was a youth, I was constantly subjected to violence in my gang- and drug-infested neighborhood. As the only one of four siblings to graduate from school on time; as the first in my family to go to college; and as a one-time homeless youth struggling with depression and a sense of purposelessness in the world, I know what it means to be a youth in crisis coming from a family in crisis. These issues resonate with me deeply.
However, as you may know from my speeches and books, the topics of youth voice, youth involvement, youth engagement and youth empowerment matter to me a lot, too. My first job working with youth was as a teacher/assistant director in a theater program when I was 14, which I continued for three summers and which set my life’s work trajectory in this area. I started a neighborhood youth council when I was 17, and learned about all this when I was 24. Its almost 20 years later, and I’m still celebrating the positive, powerful potential of young people! This matters, too.
For the last 20 years, I’ve been contracting with nonprofits, government agencies, K-12 schools and other organizations across the United States and Canada to build youth voice, foster youth engagement and support meaningful youth involvement. I have spoken, trained and advised more than 500 organizations in 200 communities, at hundreds of conferences, and to more than 1,000,000 youth and adults. The entire time, while I’ve sought to help all youth everywhere, I’ve focused my conversations on “nontraditional youth leaders” and young people who are historically denied opportunities to share their voice. In addition to young people of color and low-income youth, I was talking about youth in crisis, I was working with youth in crisis, and I was struggling for youth in crisis to become engaged as full partners within their communities rather than being treated as passive recipients.
This month, I began a national and international scan of youth voice among services for youth in crisis. Following are my initial findings from that scan.
When I talk about youth in crisis, I am talking about young people who are:
- Ran away from home
- Dropped out
- Thinking suicidal thoughts
- Are abused
- Pushed out
- Experience violence
- Experience self-harm
- Experience sexual explotation
- Abandoned by a parent or guardian
- Experiencing eating disorders
- Suffering from a substance abuse, or
- Have mental health issues
Youth who are from these areas are generally seen as “highly vulnerable populations” and as “at risk youth;” alternatively, they are also addressed as “opportunity youth” and “youth at hope.”
I’ve found that terms, ideas and concepts supporting and aligning with the idea of youth voice and meaningful youth involvement in this area include:
- Youth voice and choice
- Youth empowerment
- Youth leadership
- Peer support
- Youth/adult partnerships
- Youth engagement
- Youth-led programs
- Youth as partners
- Youth-driven activities
- Youth led prevention
- Youth in policy
- Youth-run programs
Some of the specific issues include: Community, family, and youth voice; Client engagement; Family and youth advisory boards; Collaborations throughout communities; Whole family empowerment programs; Internet engagement; Youth as trainers; Participant service evaluations; and more.
Specific activities include engaging youth as advocates; youth as trainers; youth as evaluators; youth as planners; youth as decision-makers; youth as facilitators; youth as policy-makers; and more.
Efforts to Engage Youth Voice in Crisis
A lot of people are concerned about youth in crisis. However, my recent scan shows that few of them are specifically, directly and concentratedly concerned about fostering youth voice or promoting youth engagement. Organizations and agencies that address these issues consistently focus on prevention, intervention, education and empowerment.
Currently, in governments and nongovernmental agencies across the globe, fields addressing these issues include:
- Social service agencies
- Human service agencies
- Courts and the legal justice system
- Crisis response
- Child welfare
- Juvenile justice
- Zero youth incarceration
- Youth homelessness
- Family advocates
- Public health
- Religious organizations
- Community organizations
For instance, Safe Families for Children is a national advocacy organization with chapters nationwide, including in WA. They work across the spectrum, including with churches, and occasionally address youth voice in service provision, including in their Family Friendly Handbook. Another organization called USA Cares provides financial and advocacy assistance to post-9/11 active duty US military service personnel, veterans and their families. However, there is little evidence they have focused on youth engagement or youth voice specifically. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors represents the organizations receiving government money that make up the public mental health service delivery system. Representing state mental health commissioners/directors and their agencies, this organization works with states, federal partners, and stakeholders to promote wellness, recovery, and resiliency for people with mental health conditions or co-occurring mental health and substance related disorders across all ages and cultural groups, including youth. A hugely influential organization, they focus on youth voice in several documents, but do not highlight it on their website or overall.
The National Safe Place Network works to ensure an effective system of response for youth in crisis through public and private partnerships at a local, state and national level. National Safe Place Network envisions a world where all youth are safe; however, the organization doesn’t talk about youth voice. They are concerned about youth empowerment though, and there’s a track about it at their annual conference. The Child Mind Institute is an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. However, I can’t find reference to youth voice, youth empowerment and related topics in their materials online.
Other national and international nonprofit organizations focusing on youth and families in crisis which should provide information about youth voice but apparently don’t include the National Association of County and City Health Officials. NACCHO does provide info on injury and violence among youth, but not on the role of youth voice in solving the issue. The World Bank has a report called “Children and Youth in Crisis Protecting and Promoting Human Development in Times of Economic Shocks,” but doesn’t generally provide information on youth engagement for youth in crisis.
The online resource databases related to youth in crisis don’t seem to address youth voice, either. One of the most interesting resources available today is called “Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development.” A registry of evidence-based positive youth development programs, it seeks to promote the health and well-being of children and youth. Blueprints is hosted by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV), at the Institute of Behavior Science, University of Colorado Boulder, and is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Another resources is called Connect Safely Resources for Youth In Crisis is a list of opportunities for youth provided by a nonprofit focused on safety, privacy and security.
For its 50+ programs that deal with the issues related to youth and families in crisis, the US federal government provides little information on youth voice, youth engagement, youth empowerment and youth-led programs. They do, however, provide substantial information on the issue of youth and families in crisis. For instance, the Children’s Bureau in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services hosts the massive Child Welfare Information Gateway promotes the safety, permanency, and well-being of children, youth, and families by connecting child welfare, adoption, and related professionals as well as the public to information, resources, and tools covering topics on child welfare, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home care, adoption, and more. Its a powerful tool. I have to similarly applaud youth.gov. Its a massive U.S. government website that helps organizations and individual people create, maintain, and strengthen effective youth programs. There are a lot of youth facts, funding information, and tools to help assess community assets, generate maps of local and federal resources, search for evidence-based youth programs, and keep up-to-date on the latest, youth-related news. Its a great source of information, and even features a significant collection of information about youth engagement specifically from the working group that coordinates it, as well as from individual agencies like SAMHSA. The The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is an office of the United States Department of Justice and a component of the Office of Justice Programs, and they offer some related info at the OJJDP website.
National and international foundations
Some of the foundations that reportedly support youth voice in the area of youth and families in crisis include the MacArthur Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Arnold Foundation, Annie Casey Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.
Youth MOVE National and its chapters advocate for youth voice and rights in mental health and other systems that serve young people, for the purpose of empowering youth to be equal partners in the process of change. Youth Motivating Others through Voices of Experience (M.O.V.E.) National is a youth and young-adult led national advocacy organization that wants to change the world. The organization is devoted to improving services and systems that support young people. They focus on empowering young people to partner with adults to create meaningful change in mental health, juvenile justice, education, and child welfare systems. The organization represents 77 chapters (link is external), consisting of 9,000 members across 39 states.
Perhaps Youth MOVE is the greatest hope we have to build meaningful involvement for youth in crisis. Helping people understand the power of youth voice, the potential of youth engagement and the purpose of youth-led programs to serve youth in crisis is essential.
There is also a lot of action happening at the local level nationwide, with a smaller amount at the state level. Internationally, I’m still scanning for agencies, programs and organizations addressing youth in all kinds of crisis. If you know of any specific efforts locally or internationally, or on the national and federal levels in the US, please share them in the comments below!
Let’s move this forward!