Government Office of Youth Engagement

Office of Youth Engagement

Across the United States and around the world, an increasing number of government agencies are establishing an office of youth engagement. This approach makes youth engagement formal and establishes it as the the most desirable avenue or outcome of the government agencies involved. It can be a very effective way to make a difference in the lives of youth and their communities.

If your government agency or elected official is considering addressing young people, this article shares some considerations and ways to establish a government youth engagement office.

Locations for an Office of Youth Engagement

Government Youth Engagement Office
These are options for what a government Youth Engagement Office can look like.

For more than 20 years, I have worked with government agencies across North America to establish, revitalize and re-imagine youth engagement.

I have learned that there are a few basic places in government where an office of youth engagement might exist. They include within an elected official’s office, such as a mayor, governor or parliament member.

Another location for an office of youth engagement is within a government agency, department or division. This could include public health, education, public safety or transportation, or several other agencies. The issues these offices can address are as myriad as the agencies or departments they are located within. These can include national service, homelessness, student voice, juvenile justice, foster care, climate change or other individual issues, as well as multiple issues.

The other point about locations for youth engagement offices is that they can exist at many levels. For instance, they can be within an elected official’s office, such as a mayor, governor or parliament member. Another location is within a government agency, department or division. This could include public health, education, public safety or transportation.

Perhaps most importantly is the reality that a government office of youth engagement can exist on the local, county, state or province, or federal level.

Finally, a youth engagement office can supersede any given office, issue or location by addressing an entire jurisdiction and all of its needs.

Note that this isn’t singularly about youth civic engagement, but rather any form of youth engagement throughout a community.

Considerations and Strategies

Government Youth Engagement Strategies
These are considerations for establishing a government youth engagement office.

There are many considerations for establishing an office of youth engagement. Following are some of them.

  • Placement: Where will the youth engagement office be located within the government? Having a firm, consistent location is essential for ensuring successful implementation.
  • Practices: What activities, cultures, and attitudes will the individual adults and youth involved with the office of youth engagement exhibit and possess?
  • Personnel: Who has roles in the youth engagement office and to support youth engagement? How are they selected, who ideally fills them and how are those people supported for success?
  • Policies: What are the practical, applicable rules, regulations and outcomes codified in government policy to support the office of youth engagement?
  • Products: Can you identify the actual outcomes of the youth engagement office, including the effects on individuals, the impacts on communities and the considerations for the jurisdiction that supports government youth engagement?
  • Processes: What are the everyday, mundane considerations that can make or break youth engagement, who’s responsible for them and what are the anticipated outcomes?
  • Promotion: Who strategically shares the stories, successes, challenges and failures that are essential for promoting youth engagement?

These seven P’s can provide a useful framework to embark on government youth engagement strategies. Offices of youth engagement can facilitate the most authentic forms of connectedness within and throughout communities. These were some approaches and considerations for your government’s journey to establishing an office of youth engagement.


Several government agencies across the United States have opened an office of youth engagement.

For instance, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement operates with the motto, “Learning from young people and building a new generation of leaders.” They support the Philadelphia Youth Commission and the Millennial Youth Advisory Committee in order to develop youth leadership skills, bridge generational gaps and more. Part of the city’s Office of Public Engagement, the youth engagement office is seen as a key to the city’s success.

Similar offices around the country focus on youth/police relations, youth development, foster and homeless youth, and other specific opportunities for youth engagement. They include:

For further information, including examples, training and technical assistance, call the Freechild Institute at (360) 489-9680.

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Focus On Youth Empowerment

Youth in Seattle with a Freechild Project summer camp

Youth empowerment happens when young people get the ability to do something. This can happen through education, activities, positions, or promotions. Youth empowerment happens at home, in schools, at work, and throughout communities. Youth empowerment can literally happen everywhere, anytime, for any reason.

At the Freechild Institute, we believe youth empowerment best occurs when it focuses on young people positively changing their own lives, their families, their communities, and the world. Following are some of the strategies we practice, promote and train for youth empowerment to happen.

Strategies for Youth Empowerment

Youth Empowerment can happen through…

  • Youth Voice: Youth are empowered by sharing their active, distinct, and concentrated ways young people represent themselves throughout society. Learn more here »
  • Popular Education: Youth empowerment happens by engaging young people in education towards the struggle for a just, equitable and democratic society demands alternative approaches to learning and teaching. Learn more here »
  • Youth Participation: Sometimes youth empowerment can happen through the active attendance of young people in any mode throughout their lives or communities. Learn more here »
  • Adultism Awareness: Any action that challenges adult bias throughout society. Learn more here »
  • Youth Involvement: Any deliberate effort that centers on young peoples’ ongoing attendance can be empowering. Learn more here »
  • Youth-Led Activism: Young people taking deliberate, strategic and powerful action to draw attention to issues is empowering. Learn more here »
  • Youth Leadership: The practice of young people exercising authority over themselves or others, both in informal and formal ways, is empowering for youth. Learn more here »
  • Youth/Adult Partnerships: Youth empowerment can happen when young people are fully equal with adults while they’re involved in a given activity. Learn more here »
  • Youth Equity: The pro-active rebalancing of relationships between youth and adults to allow for appropriately empowered roles is empowering. Learn more here »
  • Youth Mainstreaming: A public policy strategy that acknowledges the roles youth can play and the issues affecting them across various sectors can empower youth in new ways. Learn more here »
  • Youth Infusion: Youth empowerment happens through the active, deep, and sustained integration of young people throughout an organization or community’s structure and culture. Learn more here »
  • Youth Organizing: An approach that trains young people in community organizing and advocacy builds youth empowerment. Learn more here »
  • Service Learning: Youth empowerment can happen when youth share meaningful service throughout their communities in order to achieve clearly stated learning goals. Learn more here »
  • Project-Based Learning: Infuses deliberately planned hands-on activities focused on teaching and learning to foster youth empowerment. Learn more here »
  • Experiential Learning: Youth empowerment comes from the process of making meaning from direct experience, which may or may not be planned and does or does not have specific learning goals. Learn more here »
  • Community Youth Development: Combines the developmental instincts of young people as they naturally desire to create change in their surrounding environments by partnering youth and adults to create new opportunities for youth to serve their communities while developing their personal abilities. Learn more here »
  • Youth Social Entrepreneurship: Young people moving passion into action, creating positive action and leading children, youth and communities into changing the world in tangible ways are social entrepreneurs. Learn more here »
  • Activist Learning: Focused solely on social justice and youth empowerment, activist learning moves young people from being passive recipients of adult-driven societies towards becoming active creators of the world they want to live in. Learn more here »

There are many other strategies for youth empowerment that aren’t detailed here. It’s important to remember other considerations about youth empowerment, including which youth need youth empowerment; where youth empowerment happens; and why youth empowerment matters.

Please share any ideas, additions, challenges or other considerations in the comments section!

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Youth + Social Change in Democratic Education

Freechild Project youth in a summer camp session

Democratic education is intentionally designed learning where young people experience democracy in action, attitudes and knowledge. With democracy as a learning tool, children and youth experience shared processes, sharing their voices, staying engaged and learning through action. By focusing on justice, equality and meaningful experiences, democratic education can be a powerful tool for youth + social change.

We have worked with K-12 schools, nonprofits and government agencies to develop programs, projects, classes and more that infuse democratic education into classrooms, school improvement activities, governance and much more. There are no limits to the places where democratic education can happen or who can be involved.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

― Howard Thurman

Ways for Youth + Social Change through Democratic Education

Self-Driven Learning — When young people discover ways to learn, motivation to learn and the purpose of learning, they can learn what they want in powerful ways. Whether using life experience, studies or personal exploration, self-driven learning can change the world by fostering independence and personal engagement.

Young People as Whole People — According to Alfie Kohn, “Children, after all, are not just adults-in-the-making. They are people whose current needs and rights and experiences must be taken seriously.” Too often education treats students as humans becoming instead of human beings. The notion that young people are whole people is inherently democratic and could force the radical re-envisioning of education as a place of growth and support.

Meaningful Student Involvement — Engaging young people and educators in student/adult partnerships to discourage adultism can happen when students are planners, researchers, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates. This is the most systematic and engaging avenue for student voice in democratic education.

Needs for Youth + Social Change through Democratic Education

Training — Young people and adults can grow their learning together through educational opportunities to learn about democracy, education and the integration of each. The process of democratic education is never finished, and building the skills and knowledge of people learning together is a powerful way to foster succeeding generations of innovation and opportunity.

Opportunities — Practical and pragmatic opportunities for all students in every school to experience democratic education are the key to securing new generations of passionately engaged citizens. Developing and sustaining opportunities to co-create democracy in schools is vital to democratic education.

Reflection — Learning about democracy and learning from democracy are two different experiences that rely on each other; its not enough to do one and not the other. As John Dewey wrote, “Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.” Reflection allows, encourages and facilitates learning and action, which is at the heart of youth changing the world!

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Youth + Social Change through Youth Popular Education

SoundOut Summer Camp Participants

Creating spaces for youth and popular education can support dynamic, powerful and just opportunities for social justice, youth empowerment and community engagement. Popular education is a way of facilitating learning that moves youth from being recipients towards becoming fully equal partners. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire taught that this approach can build learners’ beliefs they can change the world, by engaging them in the world instead of separating them from it. It can also integrate youth throughout communities by positioning them as co-learners, co-leaders and full members of society.

“This movement of inquiry must be directed towards humanization — the people’s historical vocation. The pursuit of full humanity, however, cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity; therefore it cannot unfold in the antagonistic relations between oppressors and oppressed.” — Paulo Freire

Ways for Youth + Social Change through Youth Popular Education

Youth-Led Programs — Supporting youth-led action moves popular education beyond traditional classroom learning towards interactive, engaging and hands-on social change. Youth design, develop and facilitate programming, including lesson plans, activities and projects, and more. This generative process builds knowledge and ideas while supporting the individual strength, self-esteem, and the overall capacities of youth, and it challenges assumptions about what youth can and cannot do.

Youth-Led Learning — Facilitating learning for themselves, their peers, younger people and adults allows young people to experience motivation, self-empowerment, hope and ability by positioning them in positions of capability while co-learning from others. Strengthening and challenging their knowledge, youth facilitators can grow the abilities of others in unique ways, too.

Youth Learning with Adults — Engaging youth and adults as co-learners through popular education can redefine their expectations of each other while fostering safe, supportive learning environments to grow and expand their knowledge, ideas and abilities. Providing access to each other as comrades in learning can foster healthy interactions between youth and adults, challenge negative stereotypes, improve intergenerational relations, and redefine social norms that negatively affect both youth and adults.

Needs for Youth + Social Change through Youth Popular Education

Education — Comprehensive training on popular education should teach youth about the ability, capability and power inherent in co-learning, co-teaching and cooperative education. Youth should learn about the role of the facilitator (versus a teacher, trainer, leader, etc.) by experiencing group animation and motivation; staying focused on learning during a popular education activity; ensuring all the voices within a group are heard; seeking consensus, and; offering supportive and helpful feedback.

Opportunities — Young people need substantial opportunities to facilitate popular education. By actively employing popular education strategies, they can experience the humility and learning needed to become effective community advocates; inspire people to change the world, and; have real fun!

Youth/Adult Partnerships — Real youth/adult partnerships engage young people and adults in equitable relationships that can build the power, purpose and potential of youth through popular education. Transparency, communication, mutual investment and meaningful involvement in popular education can allow young people and adults to work together to transform communities in powerful, positive ways.

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Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how the Freechild Institute can support youth+ social change through youth as mediators in your community or organization, contact us.

Youth Engagement in Portland, Oregon

Back in the early 2000s, Portland, Oregon, was another midline American city with nothing special happening. Sure, they had a city youth council, but it was under-energized and ill-equipped for the new century that just began. Then, action happened.

In 2002, Multnomah County hired a new youth development coordinator named Josh Todd, and he transformed the entire operation. Over the course of a half-decade, he basically super-charged the county’s youth programs and set them up for the future.

During that time, there were several significant developments. They included:

  • Focusing on youth of color and low-income youth to dramatically increase their participation in youth engagement activities throughout the entire county;
  • Expanding the Multnomah County Youth Council and including the City of Portland to make the youth commission a joint City-County policy body;
  • Creating a two-year, community-wide project that created a Youth Bill of Rights, with more than 4,000 youth involved in the creation and implementation of the final document;
  • Securing significant funding from the Youth Innovation Fund of the Kellogg Foundation. They gave the City of Portland and Multnomah County $325,000 over 4-years to support their countywide youth engagement work. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation Youth Innovation Fund supported “diverse groups of young people, working in partnership with community institutions, to create civic innovations that address public issues and problems using a service-learning framework.”
  • They trained a lot of people through their program.

According to youth and adults there, the City of Portland and Multnomah County still have issues in their youth development, youth engagement and youth/adult partnership work. However, the work of the Youth Commission has made great strides today and into the future that all communities worldwide can learn from!

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Youth + Social Change through Youth Summits

Adam at Vancouver WA youth summit 2018 2

Youth Summits are opportunities for young people to become engaged in positive, powerful and passionate action to change the world. They create short, safe time and space where youth and their adult allies can learn and grow, share youth voice, and become engaged in what matters most to them. Also called Youth Conferences, Youth Summits should increase the inspiration, education, ability and impact of empowerment-oriented action through youth/adult partnerships.

The Basics of Youth Summits

Youth Summits should…

  • Assess youth needs from the perspectives of youth
  • Focus on identifying practical, tangible action with immediate, identifiable outcomes that are visible to youth
  • Create safe and healthy networking opportunities for youth and adult allies
  • Provide opportunities for youth and adult allies to commit to doing something and taking action afterwards
  • Create opportunities for youth and adult allies to lead and follow throughout, including developing skills in communication, teamwork, problem-solving and other lifelong areas
  • Address adultism directly and deliberately bridge gaps between age and cultural gaps

Benefits of Youth Summits

During and after Youth Summits, young people should…

  • Get the chance to meet other youth and adult allies in a specific community or interested in a specific issue area
  • Add youth voice to issues affecting entire communities or organizations or fields
  • Become active in practical, visible action that can benefit them today and in the future
  • Build their knowledge, skills and abilities to make their own ideas and the concerns of their families and communities heard
Ephebiphobia is the fear of youth. The Freechild Project
Improve your program or organization. Learn about the fear of youth today.

Tips for Planning Youth Summits

  • Develop clear big picture objectives for the Youth Summit
  • Identify SMART goals for the Youth Summit that are Specific, Measureable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-Sensitive
  • This is a group project – delegate as much responsibility as possible to create youth ownership and adult investment
  • Develop a clear decision-making process
  • Estimate how much planning time is needed, then double it.
  • Obligate all partner organizations to commit staff time and name which staff in their organization will become involved
  • Hold an orientation for all youth planners to help them understand what kind of commitment is necessary to participate in the Youth Summit
  • Help everyone involved, youth and adult allies, understand the Youth Summit requires hard-working volunteers who can be held individually accountability for their roles
  • Caution everyone involved against burnout
  • Required elements of every Youth Summit include:
    • Inspirational and motivational activities
    • Interactive activities
    • Hands-on, directly applicable learning opportunities
    • Social times and non-facilitated spaces
    • Food, snacks and drinks
    • Action planning opportunities
  • Pre-registration is highly recommended
  • Make participants feel important and special for attending. You can…
    • Limit the number of attendees
    • Give special certificates to all attendees
    • Send out a press release with participants’ names
    • Give t-shirts and other swag to attendees

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Youth + Social Change through Youth Action Councils

Freechild Project youth program participants in Seattle

Youth Action Council is a group of young people who develop a group approach using their individual abilities in order to solve serious social issues. In Youth Action Councils, young people develop, implement and evaluate actions through youth/adult partnerships. Youth Action Councils can be hosted by nonprofits, local/state/federal government agencies, school districts, community groups, international NGOs, and other organizations. Member ages, terms, numbers, issues and actions vary according to organizational priorities, youth voice and other factors. Youth Action Councils are the activity that changed everything for youth engagement. Before Youth Action Councils, organizations didn’t imagine what youth could do to change the world; after they started to exist, organizations only wanted to dream bigger.

How to Build Youth + Social Change through Youth Action Councils

Youth as Trainers ― Working together with their communities, Youth Action Councils are teaching adults, other youth, and young children about issues that matter to them. Some of these topics, including sex ed, environmentalism, and racism are at the core of major struggles today, while others are emerging issues.

Youth Grantmaking ― Young people are partnering with foundations and philanthropic organizations, as well as leading their own efforts, to raise funds and support causes that matter to them. This is happening through Youth Action Councils at the community level, nationally, and internationally.

Youth as Policy-Makers ― Youth Action Councils are active on the federal, state or provincial levels, and local levels around the world, making policy, informing elected and appointed officials, and evaluating decision-making that affects rules, guidelines, laws and regulations.

Tools for Youth + Social Change through Youth Action Councils

Motivation ― After years of being routinely disconnected from real activities that change the world, it can be challenging for youth to want to join Youth Action Councils, and when they do join them, it can be hard to feel inspired. Motivation can come through storytelling, action research, and other opportunities.

Training ― Simply being appointed, selected or choosing to be on a Youth Action Council does not make a youth capable of being successful. Careful self- and group assessments should be conducted to learn what skills are present in the group, and what needs introduced and developed.

Opportunities ― When an organization creates a Youth Action Council, it becomes essential to provide real, practical and obvious opportunities for that group to change the world. Developing SMART goals, identifying useful tools and other resources, and having Youth Advisory Councils conduct meaningful evaluations and reflect on their work midcourse and at the end of their projects is essential.

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The Practice of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher
The Practice of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher!

Youth + Social Change through Youth Mediators

Freechild Project youth in São Paulo, Brazil.

Engaging youth as mediators teaches young people to understand conflict within themselves and others. Discovering how they influence conflict, how to self-manage conflict, and how to identify strategies for calmness and clarity is enhanced by learning listening and speaking skills and how to understand other peoples’ point of view. Youth mediators can help other youth, younger students, and adults to have important conversations in order to become clearer themselves, understand each other’s perspectives, and make decisions about next steps. Youth can change the world as mediators when they apply these skills throughout their lives, including at home, in school, and throughout their communities.

You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist. — Indira Gandhi

Ways for Youth + Social Change through Youth Mediation

Youth-Led Programs — Young people can learn the deep parts of conflict resolution, become program designers and managers, and lead their own efforts to promote mediation in their schools and communities. Young people transform relationships when they move past struggle and towards interdependence and community-building.

Youth Courts — Youth courts are powerful tools for young people to develop their own capacity for problem-solving and mediation. Through jurisdiction and official proceedings, youth can reduce recidivism, promote conflict resolution and build communities instead of tearing them apart like traditional juvenile justice programs have.

Youth Managing Adult Staff — When young people participate in hiring, training, supervising and evaluating adult staff, they balance the perceptions of power within organizations and throughout communities. This acts towards mediation by empowering those who are taught, watched and facilitated by adults with the ability to rectify their challenges with adults, laying a substantive foundation for youth/adult partnerships.

Needs for Youth + Social Change through Youth Mediation

Education — Comprehensive youth mediation programs should include education for youth and adults on how to: Identify goals and outcomes; Identify and engage stakeholders, Create a team to plan and develop the program, Develop systems including referral, intake, mediation coordination; and Train students to become mediators and providing continuing education. Programs should also receive on-going technical assistance. Youth mediator programs should have immediately positive impact on conflict and be sustainable.

Opportunities — Young people need substantial opportunities to be mediators in the places they spend the most time, including at home, in schools and throughout their communities. They also need real adult allies who stand with them for mediation, and support from government agencies, law enforcement and others.

Youth/Adult Partnerships — Real youth/adult partnerships engage young people and adults in equitable relationships that can build the power, purpose and potential of youth mediators. Through transparency, communication, mutual investment and meaningful involvement, young people and adults can transform community culture for the better.

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Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how Freechild Institute can support youth+ social change through youth mediators in your community or organization, contact us.

Youth + Social Change through Youth-Led Activism 

Freechild Project youth protest in Seattle

An approach that intentionally trains young people in community organizing and advocacy, youth-led activism also assists children and youth in putting these skills to action in order to alter power relations and create meaningful change throughout their communities. Through youth-led organizing, young people can employ activities such as political education and analysis, community research, campaign development, direct action, critical thinking and membership recruitment.

How Youth Youth + Social Change Happens Through Youth-Led Activism

Youth-Led Protests — When young people can’t find adult allies, when the organizations and communities they are part of deny youth voice, and when society doesn’t budge, protest might be the most viable option. Youth-led protests can be the most powerful option children and youth have to transform society. There are countless protest activities, including sit-ins, picketing, #hashtags, walkouts, sit-ins, and more.

Youth-Led Media — Instead of allowing media to paint pictures of youth and their communities however they want to, young people can take up the mantle of journalism and truth-telling to share their own stories. Youth-led media can give children and youth a clear, concise voice to reach beyond their friends into the hearts of communities, cities, nations and the world.

Mutual Mentoring — Sometimes, simply acknowledging an adult as an ally isn’t enough. Mutual mentoring allows children and youth to be in empathetic, appropriately equitable relationships with adults. In these relationships, young people and adults are empowered to teach one another, support each other and build healthy, meaningful opportunities to grow together.

Tools for Youth + Social Change through Youth-Led Activism

Education — Simply becoming engaged in an issue is the first step towards youth-led activism. However, learning about the politics, economics and social effects of issues being protested are key, too. Youth activists can research, study and critique things central to their community organizing efforts.

Training — Learning about issues is not all youth activists need. Training can be essential for youth-led activists to be successful. They can learn the skills needed and tactics that are vital for successful for powerful short-term and long-term campaigns designed to change the world.

Inspiration — The reality of youth activism today is that there is a lot of inspiration. However, finding it can be challenging for children and youth, as few sources are brave enough to share powerful stories of youth changing the world. Youtube, select media, and many other sources may provide important stories youth can relate to. Also, in communities around the world its important to see what’s happened before, and many communities have hidden histories of youth-led activism.

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Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how Freechild Institute can support youth/adult partnerships in your community or organization, contact us.