How To Involve Youth

The Freechild Institute Youth Involvement Toolkit

Youth involvement means different things to different organizations, communities, issues, and events. It’s important to consider different ways to foster youth involvement. For some organizations, youth involvement will mean having several young board members, while others might form a youth advisory group or hire youth staff.

Different Ways to Involve Youth

All of the approaches to youth involvement fall into four general categories. The first two categories are informal and formal youth involvement. Informal youth involvement is a relaxed approach to passively encouraging youth to interact with adults. Formal youth involvement is a deliberate strategy to meaningfully engage youth as partners with adults.

The third approach to youth involvement is to involve young people directly in an existing adult body. For example, add several youth positions to an existing board, task force, policy committee, church council, city commission, foundation board, or tribal council. The biggest decision with this route is to decide if the positions will be voting, non-voting, or observing. The fourth strategy is to set up a separate group for youth only. With this strategy, pay close attention to how this group gives input to adults, and what staff support is available to keep the group functioning well.

Freechild has seen how a lot of organizations involve youth. Of all approaches, we’ve found that it’s best if organizations multiple strategies and have the strategies work together. However, it’s important to remember that there is no one right approach. What works for one organization or community might not work in another setting. The focus should be on determining where the needs and interests of organizations and youth intersect with a particular model of youth involvement. If you’re trying to make a decision about whether to add young people to a current governing body or to develop a new adjunct body, consider a few key concerns: 

  • When informally involving youth: While they may show up, young people may feel belittled, dismissed, or otherwise disengaged in informal youth involvement. These opportunities, whether virtual or in-person, can feel remote and irrelevant to the daily lives of youth and the issues they care about the most. Occasional informal youth involvement might be necessary for recruitment or retention purposes and can offer a reasonable funnel for deeper youth involvement. Overly relying on informal youth involvement might have the reverse effect than what was intended.
  • When formally involving youth: Young people should be encouraged to be authentic and share their genuine concerns with adults. When they are intimidated, many young people might hide their real selves, including their issues, challenges and voices, in order to feel more acceptable to adults. There should be equitable opportunities for youth through formal youth involvement too, with support, encouragement, education and critical thinking offered throughout activities.
  • When adding youth to adult structures: Young people may feel intimidated in a group of predominantly adult members, and therefore may not participate as freely as they should. Know that because youth representation usually only counts for a minority of total board membership, only a few young voices will be heard. This can lead to feelings of tokenism among young members. Though there are drawbacks to this approach, know that including young people in decisions made by your group compels adult members to buy into the theory that the opinions of young people are vital to the function of your organization.
  • When creating an separate activity just for youth: This body must have a defined role that is fully acknowledged by the governing body, or it can easily fall apart or become disillusioned with the organization. In this case, the entire board doesn’t receive the full benefit that participation by young people brings. However, this approach works as a less intimidating, less formal place for young people to openly discuss issues and practice decision-making and meeting participation skills. This type of structure allows input from a large number of young people.

Ten Youth Involvement Activities

What follows is a brief description of the most common ways to build youth involvement in your organization. Remember that all of these options can be considered for youth involvement, but the responsibilities of each are different. These youth involvement activities are formal and informal, and can include youth and adults, or just youth.

1. ADVISORY GROUP: An advisory group offers regular feedback and advice to an organization, governing body, or individual. The group meets regularly and gives input on particular issues as requested by the governing body. The group can also take on other projects, such as events. In most cases, the advisory group has no governing authority or programmatic function. It is critical to define the advisory group’s role and function before recruiting young people to be members. It is a mistake to set up an advisory group that is underutilized or not given sufficient authority to make recommendations.

2. DISCORD CHAT: Young people are actively engaging all the time on Discord. Its a third-party app used by gamers and others to connect online like an old-fashioned chat board. Packed with emoticons, vids and more, this is a dynamic space for youth involvement that could be used to leverage conversation and action that improves lives, communities and the world.

3. POLICY COMMITTEE: Policy committees, unlike many advisory groups, have an institutionalized role in the organization, according to the organization’s bylaws. They serve in a significant advisory capacity in all areas, from programs and hiring to budget and organizational issues. However, they do not necessarily have representation on the board. It is possible that there would be a representative from a policy committee sitting on the board generally or when the policy committee is advising the board in a specific area.

4. TIKTOK: You know about TikTok and you might use it personally. Have you seen how youth are talking about their lives and communities there? Have you explored how youth represent themselves using TikTok? In the comments section, youth freely discuss families, learning, communities, and more, as well as everything else that matters to them. TikTok is easily the most popular social media platform today. Even if you don’t use it in youth involvement, you should be learning about youth there.

5. RESEARCH COMMITTEE: A research committee designs, implements, evaluates and recommends change within an organization, particularly around specific projects. It doesn’t have any governing authority, although its input is important to a governing body. The length and scope of the study is important, as research committees are usually convened around a specific program or project. 

6. WHATSAPP: Whether they’re using WhatsApp or other messaging platforms, youth are talking about culture, politics, music, and their lives. Organizations building youth involvement can use these tools to create neutral spaces with familiar faces for youth. Instant messaging provides youth with low-barrier ways to connect in appropriate ways with supportive adults in meaningful conversations.

7. GRANT-MAKING: This committee consists of a group of people that make decisions on how to allocate funds to community projects. Among the duties performed by grant-making committees are to set funding guidelines, reviews grants, make site visits, and raise funds. Youth can be involved throughout the process as full members.

8. INSTAGRAM STORIES: Youth workers are using Instagram Stories to host Q&A sessions, share powerful and fast content, and to grab youths’ attention. These sessions can help you take the pulse of where young people are with their communities and your organization, share facts and other benchmarks. They can also help you adjust your programs accordingly.

9. COMMISSIONS: Commissions are fully autonomous entities. Rather than acting as an adjunct to an organization or city office, they are usually set up to advance policies and recommendations for a community or organization.

10. MEET UPS: It can be important to bring together young people around a cause, purpose, issue or action. Meet ups can allow youth to talk, hang out, socialize and interact while focused on something that matters to them, your organization, or the larger community. Coordinated online, meet ups happen in real time or in online spaces and can include youth who aren’t otherwise involved.

These are just some of the ways to start youth involvement in your organization, community, event, or beyond. What would you add to the list? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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