Throughout society, young people are separated, segregated, and sent away from adults. Everyday they go to school with their peers, play games with friends, watch videos reflecting their perspectives, and learn to value themselves above all else. Meanwhile, the democratic structures of society are crumbling and the social fabric is fraying. The answer to these challenges is meaningful youth involvement.
Meaningful youth involvement is any deliberate attempt to create space, usher in, build support, and sustain the presence, voice, and power of young people. Youth involvement is much more than just personal decision-making, and this article shows some different places, activities, and outcomes that prove that.
The Freechild Institute has found that whichever activities young people are involved in, there are three principles that make them meaningful. They are:
- EQUITY, NOT EQUALITY. Equity means establishing appropriately responsive relationships between youth and adults and among youth that acknowledge differences and empowers identity while fostering power. Equality is a balancing act that pretends everyone is on the same footing. Meaningful youth involvement requires equity, not equality.
- PURPOSE IS POWER. With the palatable changes they are making today, the ability of young people to change the world in positive ways should be irrefutable now. However, systems of oppression are raising many young people in vacuums where they feel rudderless and without purpose in the world. Meaningful youth involvement centers young people on making positive, purposeful change.
- COMMUNITY ISSUES ONLY. There are no “youth problems.” Instead, every problem everywhere belongs to everyone, and insists that we all get involved in creating sustainable transformations that carry the world forward. Meaningful youth involvement shows that young people are not myopic and self-centered by engaging them in the larger world around them.
These principles make youth involvement meaningful, and they make it essential everyday.
Places for Meaningful Youth Involvement
Youth involvement happens in a lot of places. However, it is rarely meaningful. Not every place can be meaningful for youth, either, but there are many places to start. Meaningful youth involvement can happen throughout communities, including:
- Schools: K-12 schools are filled with young people, yet they routinely prevent them from being involved. Meaningful youth involvement can happen in classroom learning, school administration, community connections, and many other places throughout schools.
- Nonprofits: Whether they are providing social services, saving the planet, fighting for social justice, fostering philanthropy or otherwise, nonprofit organizations can foster meaningful youth involvement through decision-making, training, evaluation and more.
- Families: Parents often make decisions for their children instead of with their children. The need to raise responsible, capable and empowered children makes meaningful youth involvement necessary through, and pushes the doors open at home.
- Internet: Instead of being passive recipients and consumers of technology, we can make positive, interactive, and creative spaces online for meaningful youth involvement. These spaces encourage interaction, share power and authority, and are driven by ability and interest rather than control.
- Government: Active planning, advocacy, research and decision-making can give youth investment, ownership and ability in their local communities, states and provinces, nationally, and beyond. Meaningful youth involvement in government can save money, build engagement, and evolve democracies.
Meaningful youth involvement can happen in many other places, too. It happens in all kinds of ways as well. Discover more places for youth involvement here »
Meaningful Youth Involvement Activities
People who involve youth often think that having young people just show up and do stuff is enough. However, what research has shown is that meaningfulness is a key to successful youth involvement. Instead of attending, participating, or even becoming engaged, meaningful youth involvement insists on exceptional ways of interacting and new ways of fostering meaning.
Meaningful youth involvement can be formal or informal, and it can happen within systems, throughout communities, or in one-to-one relationships. Some of new ways include meaningful youth involvement in researching, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy.
Outcomes of Meaningful Youth Involvement
There are also nearly countless outcomes from this involvement. Many studies have been conducted showing these outcomes of youth involvement, which include…
- Civic engagement: Youth involvement can foster a sense of purpose, power and belonging among young people. When they are involved, young people can learn about the ways communities work, why they work, and how they work best.
- Youth development: As Erik Erikson wrote about, the goals of youth development include trust, self-sufficiency, confidence, personal identity, productivity, personal identity, and integrity, among others. Youth involvement has been shown to effectively foster all these goals, and to expand and promote them too.
- Adult efficacy: That sense that we did our jobs successfully, helped young people, and built the communities we serve can be powerful, as well as meeting funders’ expectations, supporting youths’ goals, and more can all happen specifically through youth involvement.
- Program outcomes: Whether programs are attempting to prevent youth from being involved in negative outcomes, intervene in challenging realities, empowering new realities and possibilities, or engaging young people in vastly new, different and meaningful ways, youth involvement can build program outcomes and make them happen in new, dynamic and wonderful ways. Meaningful youth involvement makes change demonstrative, obvious and provable to the larger communities where its happening.
Considerations for Meaningful Youth Involvement
Through our research and action in the field, Freechild Institute has identified many considerations for meaningful youth involvement. Seven of the main considerations for anyone planning to take action are policies, practices, personnel, procedures, places, and possibilities.
- PROCEDURES: The formal operations and informal ways organizations, communities, agencies and other places operate are spectacular opportunities for meaningful youth involvement. They can include the activities, plans, objectives, classifications, grouping, and order of any institution or group.
- PERSONNEL: The people who participate in meaningful youth involvement have the brunt of the responsibility for it happening. They include any youth who are involved or surrounding the activity, as well as the adults including staff, leaders, volunteers, parents and others.
- POLICIES: Aspects of policy that can foster meaningful youth involvement include the laws that govern a community or organization; the regulations underpinning activities or outcomes; the rules within or directing programs and opportunities; and the enforcement of the policies throughout an issue or activity.
- PRACTICES: The ways that organizations, communities and families function can encourage meaningful youth involvement. They include the daily operations, programs, activities, and relationships within and surrounding individuals and communities.
- PLACES: The places, spaces and ways that meaningful youth involvement are important considerations.
- POSITIONS: Meaningful youth involvement encourages youth to care by taking positions on what matters to them and affects them. These positions can be on many topics, like freedom, identities, creativity, economics, education, democracy, health and safety, youth rights, the climate catastrophe, and more.
- POSSIBILITIES: The possibilities of anyone, anywhere at anytime that support meaningful youth involvement include partnerships, outcomes, transformation and hope that underpins all activities.
There are many other considerations too, but these give us an idea of where to start and what to do.
Ideas Related to Meaningful Youth Involvement
People often use meaningful youth involvement as a synonym for other terms. While it is related to a lot of ideas, meaningful youth involvement is not the same as…
- Youth Voice, which is any expression of any young person anywhere about anything at anytime for any reason at all
- Youth Engagement, which happens whenever youth choose the same thing over and over
- Youth Empowerment, which happens when youth are granted the authority, control and power to affect change in their own lives or the lives of others
- Youth Leadership, which is any action of any young person for the purpose of guiding, directing, managing or bringing forward themselves or others of any age.
Tools for Meaningful Youth Involvement
There are a lot of materials, research, curriculums, and programs available today to learn about Meaningful Youth Involvement. Some of the tools used to create this page include:
- “Challenges to meaningful involvement of youth in health research” by Azza Warraitch in Nature Reviews Psychology volume 1, (2022) p. 493.
- “Beyond Tokenism: Participatory Evaluation Processes and Meaningful Youth Involvement in Decision-Making” by Nadim Kara in Children, Youth and Environments Vol. 17, No. 2 (2017) p. 563-580.
- “Nothing About Us Without Us: Growing Meaningful Youth Involvement” by Tania Deperoy and Amanda Costa for the Learning and Working During the Transition to Adulthood Research and Training Center (2016).