Barriers to Youth Involvement

The Freechild Institute Youth Involvement Toolkit

There are a lot of things that stop youth involvement. Nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, schools and other organizations all have roadblocks that have to be addressed in order to bring on youth as partners in activities, programs and more.

The first Freechild Institute study about youth involvement happened in 2001 when we examined a dozen national youth-serving organizations in the United States, and continues today with more than 500 organizations we’ve worked with.

Many of the organizations Freechild has studied face two similar issues:

  1. Adults are interested in how to involve youth but don’t know how, and;
  2. Many organizations are not functioning at the level they want. 

Organizations the Freechild Institute works with are already interested in building youth involvement, so we work closely with them to help them figure out what is needed to succeed at youth involvement. This article shares some of the things we have found.

Overall, we know that in order to be successful, it is really important for organizations to address barriers to youth involvement. To get started, think about the questions in your mind already…

  • Was there a time when you tried to reach out to a different group than you belong to?
  • What challenges did you face in recruiting and maintaining that group’s involvement?
  • Is there a time when you worked to change your own group’s attitude about a situation?
  • Was it necessary for you to bring up the idea quietly and have it grow on people over a period of several months?
  • Or did you throw out an idea and ask that people respond to it immediately?

Think about the way your group works best. You know which barriers are likely to pop up for you and others as you work for youth involvement.

There are three major barriers the Freechild Institute has found can stop youth involvement over and over: Group culture, organizational structure, and personal attitudes. Following is an exploration of each of those.

Group Culture as a Barrier to Youth Involvement

The shared attitudes, joint beliefs, and common treatment among people is called the “group culture.” Forming a major barrier to youth involvement, group culture includes unspoken ideas, explicit biases, and other specific ways adults stop youth involvement from happening. Group culture can include the way we speak out loud, the things we share with each other, and the effects we have on others. It can include our language, actions, ideas and outcomes.

Youth and adults can speak different languages — quite literally! While youth might use words or hand gestures that adults don’t understand or feel uncomfortable with, adults might use phrases and body language that youth find intimidating or frustrating. In a committee meeting, it is not uncommon to hear words and abbreviations such as RFP, “in the red,” and “501(c)(3) status.” These are just a few of the terms that youth may not know.

Occasionally, youth can encounter challenges in youth involvement activities because they have signed up for something they don’t understand. There are a wide range of norms—including activities, assumptions, and rules—in organizations that adults take for granted, but that youth may not know. Things can get awkward for youth or adults because expectations weren’t clear, and youth may not feel comfortable meeting them. We recommend that a letter of agreement be signed before youth join your organization.

There will be a high turnover rate among the youth involved in your organization. The lives of youth are fluid. Almost every day can bring dramatic change. You can be ready for a lot of the changes youth go through (e.g., going away to college, participating in sports, etc.). Be sure to recruit accordingly, and keep in mind that it is best to involve more than one young person in your organization at once. It is important to remind youth that you still expect a commitment from them. It’s not fair to set a double standard that youth can frequently miss meetings for a game or performance, but adults are always expected to attend.

Finally, its important to remember that adult work settings are a new and often unwelcoming environment for many youth, and sometimes there is a lack of compassion even among adults who support youth. They may not recognize when they need help or be able to articulate the problems they are encountering. Many youth may feel misunderstood, unrecognized, and ill-prepared, even when they are fully capable of making significant contributions. 

Each of these cultural barriers — language, norms, turnover, and the lack of compassion — can stop youth involvement in its tracks.

Organizational Structure as a Barrier to Youth Involvement

There are five major structural barriers in organizations that will throw a wrench into any youth involvement: 1) Legality, 2) Budget, 3) Bylaws, 4) Conflict-of-interest, and; 5) Recruitment.

  1. LEGALITY: Is youth involvement legal? The question of legality should be carefully examined. For example, engaging youth as researchers is questioned by some government research boards which authorize studies on humans. Similarly, in 43 states, the law is silent on the issue of youth serving on boards of directors, meaning there is no specific law that addresses the issue. This lack of legal clarity understandably makes some people nervous. However, many organizations have overcome these concerns simply by becoming familiar with their state’s laws, consulting an attorney with experience in these areas, and drafting conflict-of-interest forms, etc. 
  1. BUDGET: Youth involvement takes more than time and dedication—it takes real money. There are costs involved that are often overlooked until the needs arise.
    • Compensation. The time, energy and actions of youth matter, and when they are involved in your organization they might need compensated. For some youth this might not matter; for others this might be the only way they can justify being involved.
    • Transportation to and from meetings for youth is an expense that your organization should cover.
    • Staff time will be needed to support youth involvement, including calling them before meetings, keeping in touch with them and their parents between meetings, etc.
    • Food matters. Since they may happen right after school, your organization will want to provide food at meetings.
    • Other money. Expenses will come up that will make you wish your organization had a dedicated budget line item for board activities.  But numbers aren’t the point – things like food and transportation have a range of costs nationwide.
  1. BYLAWS: At its best, youth involvement is an institutional commitment and not just a project of one or even a few individuals. The bylaws should be very specific about the age of youth who are involved, and be sure to distinguish between youth and young adults. They should discuss the numbers of youth to be involved in any specific activity in order to ensure equitable participation between youth and adults. Also, the same term limit should be in effect for all board members. By institutionalizing youth involvement in these ways and others by changing your bylaws, your organization accomplishes several things:
    • By-In: It can send a strong message that the members of your governing structure buy into the youth in governance idea;
    • Sustainability: It can ensure that youth will be vital members of your governance group long after the present staff or current members leave;
    • Commitment: It legally shows commitment to giving youth a place on your board and sends the message to youth and adults that they deserve a place in the decision-making process of your organization.
  1. CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Organizational leaders can be concerned that involving youth will create conflicts of interest. This can be easily addressed by establishing a simple but clearly written conflict-of-interest policy. Conflict-of-interest policies are often no more than a single succinct paragraph that clearly outlines the group’s policy. These policies should exist whether or not your organization practices youth involvement. When drafting or amending your own conflict-of-interest policy, always consult an attorney, since legal guidelines vary from state to state. Conflict of interest can arise at any time.
  2. RECRUITMENT: Poor recruitment can be a major structural barrier to successful youth involvement. Organizations often reach for the easiest, quickest solution to youth involvement and consequently choose someone who might not be right for the job. Youth might be over-committed in other areas, or not really interested in the position. Or it may be tempting to reach out to youth who you think should be involved, or who you specifically want to help. While well-intended, it’s not an effective selection policy. Youth involvement has a place in every organization, but it’s important to choose the opportunities and individuals who are involved with intention, instead of by default. The board of directors might not a place for youth who need lots of extra attention because this work can require a team effort; a youth-led graffiti mural might not be the best place for an over-committed youth who doesn’t have time for the artistic process. Putting in the time up front to develop a thorough recruitment plan and then recruiting strong participants can be critical to long-term success. 

Personal Attitudes as Barriers to Youth Involvement

Your personal attitude and the attitudes of everyone involved determine whether or not youth involvement can succeed. Through our intergenerational trainings, Freechild helps examine the beliefs, ideas, opinions, concerns, and assumptions people have about youth involvement. Lots of these can be traced specifically to adults’ fear of youth and bias towards adults. There are specific ways to overcome the these challenges though, and our work has helped us uncover the steps.

No matter what their jobs are, adults who support youth (including youth workers, teachers, parents, counselors, advocates, etc.) care deeply about them and work hard to make the world a better place for them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t prevent them from unconsciously holding beliefs that keep youth from reaching their potential.

The way our society is structured, older people have more power than younger people do. In general, adults have access to more resources and information than youth. In contrast, youth have fewer resources and recognized rights. This creates a power dynamic Freechild calls “adultism.” Adultism is the bias towards adults that results in discrimination against youth. Adultism takes the form of any behavior, action, language, or limitation placed on youth that limits or infringes on the respect that they deserve as human beings. Adultism is often based on the belief that, because someone is young, they lack intelligence or ability. 

Freechild’s work has shown that establishing clear lines of communication and building mutual respect between youth and adults creates a better working environment. Because of this, paying attention to youth involvement can help the functioning of the entire organization because the issues facing youth are often the same needs the adults have.  This work on attitudes isn’t just necessary before youth involvement begins, but should become standard practice throughout all organizations. 

It seems silly to say that all adults have been young, but deep down everyone knows we have all felt disrespected at one time or another. When we grow into adulthood though, it seems like everyone tends to forget what it was like to be young and often fall into the same patterns of adult behavior that hurt us as youth, including the fear of youth and adultism. 

Youth are powerful, energetic and intelligent, and they are already human — whole and capable individuals. Despite that, society often treats youth as if they are in training to become adults, and because of that they aren’t human until they are adults. People under 21 are often disrespected solely because of their age and are assumed that they lack experience, knowledge, and intelligence, and because of that they are not worthy of being treated as full humans. 

This is not about placing blame. Adultism is nobody’s fault. This is about supporting youth, building relationships with them, realizing ways that they are being disrespected, and working with them to improve our organizations and society as a whole. Here are some tips to help you work on shifting attitudes about youth and adults:

APPRECIATE PEOPLE. Sincerely appreciate and notice the ways that adults are good allies to youth. (“I noticed the way you listened to LaTanya and backed her up when people were being unfair to her.”) Also notice and appreciate the ways that youth back each other up. (“It was great that you would not let Greg bad-mouth Maria in front of her friends. I’m glad you stuck by her.”) Avoid cutting people down. Instead, point out the things they do well. With a bit of forethought, you can find things you appreciate about people even if you don’t know them well. Appreciating people is one of the best ways to demonstrate that you really care, even if you and that person don’t always agree. 

BE PROUD TO BE AN ADULT. Adults need to be in touch with our joy in, and curiosity for, life and adventure. Youth need to see adults leading full, satisfying lives — lives with possibilities and potentials that they should enjoy, too. Too often, youth characterize adulthood as a boring and miserable existence. Too many adults give youth no reason to think otherwise. Working with youth can help adults remember that life should be fun. 

PAY ATTENTION TO WORDS. Instead of defining youth only by their age and referring to them as “children,” “kids,” or “students,” try calling them simply “people” or “friends.” Language is an extremely effective way to raise awareness. When we begin to think of and talk about youth as just people, instead of defining them by age, we work to break down age-related stereotypes.

INVOLVE PARENTS. Parents have the most direct influence on the lives of youth. Raising a child is no small undertaking. A huge segment of the parent population is overworked, under-supported, and criticized. Parents deserve patience and support. When working with youth, it is important to establish a personal relationship with their parents. Get to know them. Respect them. Share with them your ideas about empowering youth. Remember that they are as concerned as you are about youth and can make wonderful allies.

CREATE MORE OPPORTUNITIES. Youth boards, youth staff members, youth evaluators, youth advisors, youth researchers, youth trainers… all examples of ways to foster youth involvement in organizations, and all of these are privileged opportunities. The nature of youth involvement is one of privilege and exclusivity. This can be a difficult idea to grasp, but let’s think about it: for every one youth who is actively engaged in decision-making or leadership or empowerment activities of any time, there are dozens and hundreds more who are not involvement in any way. At best, they are asked to attend and participate in youth development activities, educational goals or service work. Adults do not meaningfully involve these youth in doing things to change organizations, their communities, or the work. It is a privilege to be involved. Having deliberate opportunities for meaningful youth involvement is a particularly important thing though. Adults must understand that youth have these particularly powerful opportunities and that we have an ethical obligation to spread these opportunities throughout our society.

Other Barriers

What other barriers might get in the way of your youth involvement efforts? To answer this question, consider common barriers in your organization that prevent good ideas from being implemented, and address them at the outset. By planning for ways to address barriers in the beginning, you won’t be caught off guard when they occur. Other people in your organization will likely be more supportive when they see that you have thought through the ramifications of youth involvement.

Critical Questions about Barriers to Youth Involvement

  1. Are barriers to youth involvement being addressed? 
  2. What steps are taken to ensure that youth involvement is meaningful?
  3. Do youth understand the intentions of the process, decision, or outcomes?
  4. Do youth know who made the decisions about youth involvement and why they were made?
  5. Is the process and are the results of youth involvement recorded, reported in writing, and distributed?
  6. Do youth involved receive a report (verbal or in writing) on the outcomes of youth involvement?
  7. Were false and negative assumptions about youth’ abilities to participate deliberately addressed by youth and/or adults?
  8. Are all adults clear about the class or community’s intent to foster youth involvement?
  9. Do adults support youth involvement?
  10. Do adults provide good examples of youth involvement?
  11. How was youth’ inexperience and lack of knowledge identified? How were they addressed? 
  12. Did youth work on issues that they clearly identify as important?
  13. Did youth work on issues that their community clearly identifies as important?
  14. Did youth start with short-term goals and activities?
  15. Have youth and adults identified and, when possible, corrected negative experiences youth have had with youth involvement?
  16. What steps were taken to reduce the resistance from adults?
  17. Has there been a written policy statement developed from the governing body supporting and advocating for youth involvement?
  18. Has there been a memo/document from the community leader stating their support, encouragement, and commitment to youth involvement?
  19. Has the Executive Director introduced youth involvement to community leaders?
  20. Have there been social events organized to increase positive interactions between youth and adults? 
  21. Have joint workshops with youth and adults been held?
  22. Has a plan been put in place to infuse youth throughout the mainstream, core activities of the class or community?
  23. Have steps been taken to help youth fit into adult structures?
  24. Have youth been placed on in a previously adult-only group with support from a designated adult?
  25. Does someone meet with youth before meetings to help them clarify their objectives for the meeting?
  26. Do youth feel comfortable about asking for clarification?
  27. What steps have been taken to make the location and times of meetings convenient to youth?
    • Consulting with the youth involved about times/dates of meetings
    • Choosing locations that are accessible to youth and public transportation
  28. Are there any other initiatives or changes going on in the program or community (new programs, restructuring, etc.) that will compete for attention with the goals and processes of youth involvement?
  29. How do you know that they are credible?
  30. How often have there been problems when involved youth have not been able to complete their tasks on time for the activities? What steps were taken to avoid these problems in the future?

These are the main ways Freechild has found youth involvement getting blocked, stopped, limited or challenged throughout nonprofits, government agencies, schools and more. What are some ways you have seen? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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