Planning for Youth Involvement

The Freechild Institute Youth Involvement Toolkit

Learning about youth involvement and doing it are very important. However, it’s important to understand why things work and why they do not. One way you can do that is by planning for youth involvement.

Our tool below can help you plan youth involvement in your program, organization, community or beyond.

Freechild Youth Involvement Planning Tool

This is a project process by the Freechild Institute

Every organization should invent and re-invent youth involvement every time it happens. These are general questions designed to encourage organizations to plan youth involvement overall; they should be re-interpreted for every organization every time they are used, too!

1. Have You Defined Youth Involvement?

  • What are you asking for? Ask what your organization is capable of involving youth in, why you want to involve young people, and what you expect from youth involvement. 
  • Have you figured out what you’re asking for? Identify what your organization wants youth to be involved in. Then think about which type of youth involvement you want to use.

2. Why Do You Want To Involve Youth?

  • What difference will it make? Consider who in your organization can benefit from youth involvement, and identify your common motivations for inviting youth to the table. It is important for everyone in your organization to determine the exact reasons why you want to involve young people. 
  • Do you have clear goals? Defining objectives is a way to create a benchmark for your organization. While larger goals will keep you focused in the right direction, your objectives will lead the way. Objectives should be specific, tangible, and attainable.

3. Have You Assessed Your Organization?

  • Have you built support? Assemble a committee in your organization to research and help prepare for youth involvement, and by doing that you can involve more adults in this idea. Conduct individual conversations with all adult leaders in your organization to make sure they understand and support youth involvement. 
  • Have you invested in staff? Your staff can be the cornerstone that makes youth involvement stand. In many organizations, staff members support new young members by helping them prepare for meetings or by providing transportation. This kind of undertaking can be a great way to foster a deeper relationship between your staff, volunteers, and young people.

4. Have You Determined Your Approach?

  • Have you considered the options? Consider adding half youth to all people on a body, committee, board, team or group at the same time. Anything less can too easily amount to token representation that will fail. Be ready to implement a thorough training program for both young people and adults.
  • Are you thinking broadly? Consider setting up a new, adjunct youth body. Be clear about this group’s role and scope of power. Make sure that everyone involved agrees on the role of this group and is willing to share authority in particular areas where the body will be advisors or decision-makers or something else. Also make sure that you have staff or adult volunteers assigned and ready to devote time and energy to getting the group recruited, oriented, and ready to do their job.

5. Can You Overcome Organizational Barriers?

  • Can you make youth involvement permanent? Organizations need to move past token youth involvement as a good idea and build good practice into their structures. That includes making policies or amending bylaws to say that youth will be permanently involved throughout your organization, in planning, research, training and teaching, evaluating, decision-making, advocating, and more. If you are creating a youth action committee, be sure that it is a permanent structure, not one that will disappear with a change in administration.
  • Will systems changes last? Identify potential conflicts of interest and develop potential courses of action to address them, and directly address any related budget and staff considerations. Identify some of the scheduling challenges inherent in youth involvement and work to make youth involvement similar or equal to that of adults. Make the resources youth need to participate available directly to youth, and develop ways to pay for expenses in advance as opposed to reimbursing them.

6: Did You Overcome Personal Barriers?

  • Have adults overcome their stereotypes and discrimination? We all have stereotypes about youth. To work well with young people, we must recognize these negative assumptions and learn to share real authority. Involve youth people in all issues, not just those affecting youth. Make the group understand that youth members do not represent the voice of all young people. Consider your own negative assumptions and stereotypes about young people in order to learn about sharing real authority with them, and consider adjusting your professional ‘adult’ language to expressions that young people can better understand.
  • Do youth know that they deserve to have a say? Young people deserve to have their voices heard. Recognizing this isn’t always easy because we are so often told that young people have nothing to say. Youth need to recognize their own value. Continually ask young people how you can assist them better, and take their recommendations seriously.

7: Have Legal Issues Been Addressed?

  • Is youth involvement legal? Because each state makes its own laws, check to see what the laws around youth involvement are in your state. For the most part, you will find three different kinds of state rulings: 1) A law that says it is legal for youth to be involved in any activity, including legal decision-making, formal research, classroom teaching, etc.; 2) A law stating that it is not legal for youth to be involved if they are under a certain age; and 3) No law on the issue at all. If you cannot have youth involvement, explore options when it is not legal.
  • Have you thought about contracts? Though many committees and boards where youth involvement happens do not often enter into legal contracts, it is important to note that age-specific contract laws exist. Research the contract laws in your state.

8: Did You Recruit Young People?

  • Are you clear about what you want from youth? As with any strong team, youth involvement should reflect an even balance of interest, skills, and diversity among its members. There are some characteristics that are important for every adult supporting youth involvement to possess and some skills that only a few members need to have. Before selecting new members, create a profile for the group you want youth involvement to happen in. This should be a list of characteristics already found in the group, as well as those skills you hope new members will possess. Recruit new members in ways that will attract non-typically involved youth to become involved, and use your recruitment strategy to educate both youth and adults about your organization’s commitment to youth involvement.
  • Are you tokenizing youth? Adding half youth to any group of adults offers good support for youth involvement. It is important that young people not feel alone or isolated in your group. Forward-thinking organizations require that at least 50% of all membership on their board, committees, or staff are youth. 

9: Is There A Strong Orientation Process In Place?

  • Is there an orientation for new youth? Create an orientation system specifically for youth involvement opportunities. Your orientation program for new members should clearly outline the basics of your organization’s mission, programs, structure, and history, as well as a forthright description of the relationships between your staff, volunteers, parents, board, and funders. You should also review the roles and responsibilities of youth involvement, and why you are involving youth.
  • Are parents or guardians trained on youth involvement? In addition to conducting an in-depth orientation with young people, it is important to help their parents or guardians feel comfortable with your organization as well. Parents play an important role in the success of involved youth. Parents or guardians should know at least one individual from your group. Have a letter of agreement that describes the responsibilities of the program and the role you are asking the young person to take in the organization.

10: Are You Intentionally Developing Young Leaders?

  • Do you train youth about their involvement? Young people may need skills training that covers reading budgets, working on committees, and other pieces of task-related knowledge, like how to plan, evaluate, teach, research, govern, or advocate. Many groups set up a buddy system, pairing a seasoned member with each new member for questions, advice, and general support. Over time you can develop a system for current or former youth members to train new youth members. Skills young people may benefit from include group presentations, teambuilding, meeting facilitation and reading budgets.
  • Is there training for adults in the org and other places? Most adults have never carefully considered the assumptions they hold about young people. By fostering youth involvement in your organization, your organization’s environment should be inviting to them. For your adult members, this means exploring their own stereotypes about youth and learning to be good allies for young people. Consider engaging youth as trainers for adults to provide authentic perspectives for adults.

11: Have You Conducted Intergenerational Training?

  • Do you offer intergenerational training? Once youth involvement happens you will need to continue training the whole group. This is a wonderful way to foster interpersonal relationships among your members and further diminish any tensions that may exist because of age. The focus of intergenerational training is to bridge the gap between adults and young people so they can work more effectively together.
  • Have you been innovative? Don’t underestimate how important it can be for people to have fun and try new things  Adults can be a bit tight-lipped when discussing some of the topics that should be included in intergenerational training (such as how youth really view adults, and vice versa). Laughing allows everyone the freedom to let go of his or her inhibitions for a little while.

12: Do You Facilitate Successful Meetings?

  • Have you made considerate plans for meetings? Your meeting times may conflict with young people’s schedules. While young people may not have teleconferences to keep them from meetings, they do have basketball games, school play rehearsals, and family engagements. They, in fact, have less control over their time than most adults do.
  • Do you have interactive meetings? Everyone appreciates an engaging meeting. A few small changes to your meeting structure can help everyone be involved, especially young people. State meetings with warm-up exercises and break into smaller groups whenever possible. Include small group time where everyone has a chance to speak. Go around the group and ask each person to give feedback. When reviewing a budget, do it in pairs, and always make sure there is plenty of opportunity for all to ask questions. Also, use appreciations during meetings.

13. Are You Building Youth/Adult Relationships?

  • Have you recognized relationships are the key? Strong relationships are key to all successful programs and social change movements. From local community efforts to international movements, it is a solid network of committed people that create social change. This human caring is where deep, permanent transformation comes from. Offer informal time for young people and adults to build close relationships with each other. Keep your commitment to young people consistent, and do not let them be overshadowed by ‘more important’ meetings and commitments. Make sure young people are given the opportunity to speak on every issue, not just programmatic issues. Actively seek young peoples’ opinions by providing more information or encouraging further discussion, especially when they do not seem interested. Give equal weight to the opinions of young people.
  • Do you remember how important it is to involve parents and guardians? It is vital to include parents right from the start. Get to know them. Share information with them. Answer their questions. Invite them to events. Appreciate them and the work that their child is doing for your group. Convey to them your enthusiasm for the work you’re doing. In addition, let young people know that you are going to be talking to their parents. Let them know that you are not checking up on them or breeching any confidentiality, but that talking with their parents will ensure that they know how important young people are to your organization.

14. Did You Develop a Mentoring Plan?

  • Did you know new members especially need mentors—whether youth or adults? When joining a group, new members of all ages can use the advice of a buddy who already knows the ropes. Youth can mentor adults, and adults can mentor youth. Young people are unique because they seldom have prior professional experience. Mentors, whether they be experienced adult or young group members, provide critical support to young people by helping them learn new terms, understand organizational culture, and build confidence to act as full partners in the group. Provide staff to support youth with transportation, help with presentations, etc., but don’t make them assume all of the mentoring responsibilities. Encourage regular contact outside of meetings between youth members and adult leaders (e.g., executive directors, board chairs, principals, CEOs). Encourage mentors to act responsible for making certain that new members attend meetings, have the support they need, and become well oriented to the organization.
  • Does everyone know their responsibilities, including youth and adults? In order for mentoring to work, mentors should know what’s expected of them. There are a range of responsibilities that a good mentor should have, but most importantly, mentors should make sure that new members attend meetings, have the support they need, and are well-oriented to the organization they have joined. 

15. Will You Sustain Youth Involvement?

  • Are young leaders networked with each other? As adults work to forge strong relationships with young people, they must be mindful of the relationships that youth build with each other. Young people on boards of directors, city councils, or in other leadership positions can be excellent support for one another. By being networked with other youth leaders, young people see that they are not alone in their work and that other youth care about the same issues.
  • Do adults support each other? It is not easy to remember that you need support too. As adults working with youth, we tend to put our own personal growth and ourselves on the back burner. Just as youth need the support of other youth, allies to young people need opportunities to talk with one another about their experiences.
  • Has your org reflected in order to plan next steps? Have the group regularly reflect on how their youth/adult partnerships activities affect them personally. Provide times for the group to evaluate the success of youth involvement and redevelop youth involvement as needed. Celebrate and appreciate the accomplishments and efforts of young people and adults. As a group, go through a reinvention process to ensure continual youth involvement and efforts to improve.

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