Barriers to Youth Engagement

Youth participants in a Freechild program.

Freechild Institute Youth Engagement Toolkit

As much as we want the practice of youth engagement to work without a hitch, things usually don’t happen that way. There are often limiting attitudes and logistical challenges that can prevent young people from functioning well on a governing body or program committee.

One of the reasons adults do not engage young people intentionally is that it can be a lot of work. By committing to youth engagement, you are taking on the challenge of changing attitudes, structures, and behaviors, and this is never easy. Positive change takes hard work, but can be satisfying in the end.

As you think about youth engagement, consider barriers you have faced in other efforts within your group. For example…

  • Was there a time when you tried to reach out to a different constituency?
  • What challenges did you face in recruiting and maintaining that group’s involvement? Is there a time when you worked to change your 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. What barriers are likely to pop up as you work to engage young people?

Organizational Challenges to Consider

There are four major structural barriers in organizations that will throw a wrench into youth engagement. They are legality questions, no dedicated budget, outdated bylaws, and conflict-of-interest issues.

Law

Many people wonder whether it is even legal to engage youth. The issue of legality should be carefully examined. In 43 states, the law is silent on the issue of young people engagement on boards of directors, as staff members, or in leadership positions. This means there are no specific laws 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 this area, and drafting conflict-of-interest forms.

Budget

Fostering youth engagement takes more than time and dedication. There are costs involved that are often overlooked until the needs arise. Transportation to and from meetings for young people is an expense that your organization should cover. Staff time (say, three to 12 hours a month) will be needed to support young people (calling them before meetings, keeping in touch with them and their parents between meetings, etc.). Additionally, because they may take place right after school, your organization will want to provide food at meetings, whereas food may never have been provided before. Other expenses will arise that will make you wish your organization had a dedicated budget line item for youth engagement activities.  But numbers are not the focal point; things like food and transportation have a range of costs across the country. The point is to remember to consider what it means to engage youth: It takes time, effort, energy, training, AND money. Doing it with less can compromise everyone involved.

Bylaws

By institutionalizing youth involvement in the form of changing your bylaws, your organization accomplishes several things:

  1. It sends a strong message that the members of your governing structure are invested in youth engagement;
  2. It ensures that young people will be vital members of your organization long after the present staff or current members leave; and,
  3. It legally shows commitment to youth engagement and sends the message to young people that they deserve to be engaged throughout your organization.

At its best, youth engagement is an institutional commitment, not a project of one or even a few individuals. A general note for any organization is to be specific about the age of youth you want to engage. Be sure to distinguish between young people and young adults. It is not necessary to set a minimum or maximum age limit.

Conflict of Interest

Organizational leaders are sometimes concerned that youth engagement will create a conflict 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 youth are engaged in your organization. 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. At a nonprofit organization in one state, the director fired a staff person. Feeling she was fired unfairly, the staff person appealed to the organization’s board of directors, which was her right to do. There were three young people who sat on the board of directors who also worked closely with this staff person. To avoid conflict of interest, the three youth members participated in the discussion of the issue, but excluded themselves from voting. This kind of conflict of interest and awareness can be present throughout any youth engagement in your organization.

Attitudes

Freechild has found that attitude has everything to do with successful youth engagement. Since I co-founded Freechild in 2001, I have continuously researched youth-serving organizations across the nation. I have found that attitudes including growth mindsets and trauma-informed practices are key to successful youth engagement.

Many of the organizations I have studied face two similar issues:

  1. Organizations are genuinely interested in how to engage youth;
  2. Many are not functioning at the level they want. 

Many organizations are already interested in having youth engaged, so Freechild works closely with them to help them figure out what was needed to really build, support, and sustain youth engagement.

My experience has shown that these organizations had established good orientation processes, bylaws, and paper procedures to engage youth.  However, moving from paper to people was a different matter. When I train organizations, I begin sessions with intergenerational topics to help explore adult fears and expectations of working with young people, and examine the barriers to youth engagement.

Freechild’s work with these initial seven organizations clearly concluded that establishing clear lines of communication, and building mutual respect between young people and adults, creates a better working environment.  These organizations found that attention to youth involvement helped the functioning of the entire organization because the issues facing newly engaged youth were often the same needs the adults had. Freechild finds this attitudinal work is not only needed in the pre-work stage of youth engagement but should come throughout the process of youth engagement in all organizations.

Adults who work with young people (parents, counselors, advocates, etc.) usually care deeply about them and work hard to make the world a better place for them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t prevent these adults from unconsciously holding beliefs that keep young people 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 young people. In contrast, young people have fewer resources and rights.

This creates a power dynamic we call “adultism.” Adultism is a term applied to any behavior, action, language, or limitation placed on youth rights limiting or infringing on the respect that they deserve as human beings. It is often predicated on the belief that, because someone is young, they lack intelligence or ability.

We’ve all been young, and deep down we know we’ve all felt disrespected at one time or another. But when we grow into adulthood, we tend to forget what it was like to be young and often fall into the same patterns of adult behavior that hurt us as youth.

Adults often have misconceptions about young people because we’ve been taught throughout our lives that they are somehow inferior when, in fact, young people are powerful, bursting with energy and intelligence. Young people are human — they are already complete and capable individuals. Yet, our present society often treats them as if they are in training to become human beings. Those under 21 are often not respected solely because of their age. The excuse for treating young people this way is an assumption that they lack experience, knowledge, and intelligence.

This is not about placing blame­­­­­­. Adultism is nobody’s fault. This is about supporting young people, 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 young people and adults:

Gratitude

Sincerely appreciate and notice the ways that adults are good allies to young people. (“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 young people 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.

Pride

Adults need to be in touch with our joy in, and curiosity for, life and adventure. Young people need to see adults leading full, satisfying lives — lives with no limits. Too often, young people characterize adulthood as a boring and miserable existence. Too many adults give youth no reason to think otherwise. Working with young people can help adults remember that life should be fun.

Parent Engagement

Parents have the most direct influence on young people’s lives. 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 young people, it is important to establish a personal relationship with their parents. Get to know them. Respect them. Share with them your ideas about empowering young people. Remember that they are as concerned as you are about young people and can make wonderful allies.

More Obstacles

What other barriers might get in the way of your efforts to support youth engagement? To answer this question, consider common barriers in your organization that prevent good ideas from being implemented, and address them at the outset. For example, if the biggest barrier for your organization is money, keep this in mind from the beginning. By planning for ways to address barriers in the beginning, you won’t be caught off guard when they occur. Adults of all kinds, including volunteers, parents, and staff, will likely be more supportive when they see that you have thought through the ramifications of this initiative. Following are more pitfalls that can get in the way of successful youth engagement.

  • Bad Recruiting: Poor recruitment can be another hazard to fostering youth engagement. Organizations often reach for the easiest, quickest solution to youth involvement and consequently choose someone who might not be right for the job. The young person might be over-committed in other areas, or not really interested in the position. Or it may be tempting to reach out to young people who you think should be engaged, or who you want to help. While well intentioned, this is not an effective selection policy. The governing body is not a place for young people who need lots of extra attention because this work requires a team effort. Putting in the time up front to develop a thorough recruitment plan and then recruiting strong participants is critical to long-term success.
  • Unclear Expectations: Occasionally, youth are challenged to become engaged because they have signed up for something they don’t understand. There are a wide range of activities and rules concerning youth engagement that adults take for granted, but that young people may not know. For example, your committee may assume that each member will contribute money to the annual fund-raising campaign. This is something you might not mention to new, young members, but when the annual campaign rolls around, the assumption still stands. Things can get awkward for young people or adults because expectations weren’t clear, and young people may not feel comfortable meeting them.Freechild recommends that a letter of agreement be signed before young people become engaged throughout your organization.
  • Unanticipated Change: You should expect that there will be a high turnover rate among the young people involved in your organization. Young people’s lives are fluid. Almost every day can bring dramatic change. You can be ready for a lot of the changes young people 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 and young people that you still expect a commitment from them. It’s not fair to set a double standard that young people can frequently miss meetings for a game or performance, but adults are always expected to attend.
  • Low Support: Remember that adult work settings are a new and often unwelcoming environment for many young people. They may not recognize when they need help or be able to articulate the problems they are encountering. Think of their situation like a visit to a foreign land. You don’t understand the traffic rules or cultural etiquette, so you walk around on pins and needles fearing that you are making a mistake or about to make one. You’re so lost you don’t even know how to ask for help. This is how many young people feel in this new environment. They may feel misunderstood, unrecognized, and ill prepared, even when they are fully capable of making significant contributions.
  • Complicated Words: Young people and adults often speak different languages — quite literally. While young people might use words or hand gestures that adults don’t understand or feel uncomfortable with, adults might use phrases and body language that young people 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 young people may not know.

These are just some of the barriers to youth engagement. Its important that your organization explores what works and doesn’t work for you. If you have any questions about how Freechild Institute can support youth engagement in YOUR community, contact us today!

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