Organizations dealing with issues relevant to youth are increasingly recognizing that youth involvement helps form policy that is more effective and responsive to the needs and preferences of young adults. The presence of youth on groups can remind adults what being an adolescent is actually like! Further, involving youth in problem-solving and community dialogue helps them develop civic responsibility by giving young people a voice in shaping the policies and outcomes designed to benefit them. Offering youth the opportunity to help develop the policies that will impact them is a sure way to create buy-in, ownership, and ultimately, better policies. And you may even find that adults are positively influenced by the presence of an energetic young person!
There are a number of logistical, legal, and cultural issues to keep in mind when involving youth in your group. It is strongly recommended you take some time as a group and openly address the issues below before youth group members begin to attend meetings.
Just like when working with other members of underrepresented groups, there are logistical and legal concerns that should be taken into consideration when working with youth.
- Meeting time. The meeting time cannot interfere with school, work or extracurricular schedules. Your group may want to consider being flexible in meeting dates and times, and discussing it with the youth group members at the beginning of their school term.
- Refreshments. Youth will want and need to eat, just as adults. They can contribute to a potluck or benefit from your catering budget, but either way it is not a bad idea to make food available.
- Compensation. Your group will need to establish a protocol to compensate youth for their time with an honorarium, stipends, or consultation fee. Providing compensation is not only a recruitment tool, but a very real way to send the message that their time is valuable and respected. It is also necessary to consider the manner of compensation so that you do not negatively impact any public assistance benefits. Travel and other expenses related to group participation should be covered by the group.
- Meeting protocol. Although adult members of your group may be familiar with the structure and norms of a meeting, youth may not have had this experience. Providing training to youth about meeting expectations, group norms, voting protocols, etc. will allow them to feel more comfortable with the structure and pace of the meeting.
- Parental contact. It is a good idea for the parents or guardians of a youth group member to have regular contact with at least one adult member of your group to address time commitments, any special needs, and transportations concerns. You can also invite the youth’s parents to events. So you don’t create any misconceptions on the part of the youth, be very clear that you are in contact with their parent or guardian.
- Potential language barriers. It will be important to identify and support linguistic needs (e.g. interpreters) as necessary. Whether because of jargon, pace, or the use of acronyms, your group will need to be sensitive to all discussion short cuts that might prevent new members from understanding the conversation.
- Technology. Remember that young people may be more comfortable communicating and participating using various forms of technology. For example, meeting reminders may be more effective if sent via text message or Facebook. Just make sure your organizational policies allow for communicating in this way.
Making decisions with youth from the beginning can allow for a respectful and productive relationship. However, too often adults “talk at” youth and develop policies “for” youth instead of listening and participating with them to develop and establish policies that will actually work. Being an ally and helping youth represent themselves instead of talking for them and creating a space for meaningful participation by youth requires crossing the cultural divide that may exist between the adults and youth representatives. Some issues that may arise include:
- Power Sharing: To address some of the unique challenges present in a youth-adult partnership, it is crucial to recognize that it may be particularly difficult for adults to see youth as worthy of power. Likewise, for many youth, power-sharing may be a new and difficult role. It is helpful to be clear about the exact responsibility of youth and role in decision-making. One way to address this is by reviewing voting policies with all members at the beginning of a term.
- Youth Culture: Adults may need to take cultural competency or responsiveness trainings to prepare for working with youth. Youth culture is just as unique as any other culture that adults may encounter in their jobs. Sometimes the most inspirational messages come from youth who, in their professional inexperience and optimism, risk saying what needs to be said in a direct way. Within this, it is important to be sensitive and open to dissent. You do not have to agree on everything. Ideological differences will exist with youth just as they might with other adults on the group.
- Language: Young people are sensitive to language. The language adults use provides clues to their attitude towards youth, and youth will pick up on those attitudes. For example, do not call your youth members ‘kids’ or ‘students’ – refer to them as ‘young adults’, ‘people’ or ‘partners’. While it is important to refrain from using industry jargon, you should not over-simplify your language so you are talking down to youth or treating them in a condescending way. Additionally, there is no need to try to use slang terms if they are not familiar to you. Young people will be more likely to be responsive if you treat them with respect than if you try to be one of them.
- Tokenism: Creating authentic youth engagement instead of merely making a symbolic gesture can be challenging. However, there are several ways to make a young person not feel like a token voice such as considering the possibility of bringing on two or three youth at a time and encouraging all or any to attend meetings whenever possible; involving youth in the discussion, not as observers but by speaking directly to youth and asking clear questions particularly in the beginning to foster engagement; and giving youth access to the same equipment and materials as the adults.
- Potential Language Barriers: It will be important to identify and support linguistic needs (e.g. interpreters) as necessary. Whether because of jargon, pace, or the use of acronyms, your group will need to be sensitive to all discussion short cuts that might prevent any new member, not just youth, from understanding the conversation.
The amount of energy you put into recruitment and selection will be reflected in the caliber, diversity, and commitment of the youth you select. It is therefore doubly important to prepare fully before beginning the recruitment process. Before you begin to recruit youth, we recommend that your group:
- Clearly articulate why they are seeking youth input;
- Develop a group policy that stipulates the inclusion of youth;
- Have a strategy for involving the youth in the decision-making process.
Creating an environment where the youth feels engaged, motivated, and valued is not only about coaching and mentoring the youth, but also about training the adults on how to work with youth. Your group members need to expect the best and communicate high expectation and levels of trust.
One retention strategy is to provide time for reflection through regular check-ins. Regular support helps youth understand the big picture, and how to track and synthesize information. Check-ins may include:
- How does the mission reflect your values and interests?
- Did you feel comfortable sharing your experiences?
- How can you see your strengths and talent benefitting the group’s goals?
- What other information do you need before you make the decision the join?
- Will your family support you in this endeavor? Who can we contact?
- Will the meeting times and expectations interfere with your school/work?
- Do you have a referral of another youth that would be interested in group membership?
When youth are treated with respect and trust they tend to do a good job. They are very good at living up to or down to an adult’s expectations. One way to help youth to identify their strengths and interests for participation is by conducting a skill and interest inventory.
A mentor can provide an understanding of the history, community members and past events. The main thing to consider when choosing adult mentors for youth representatives is that they are eager to cultivate the youth voice, have shown patience, and are level-headed. They should also make sure they have the time to dedicate to supporting the young person. In addition, the mentor should remember that navigating relationships with youth can be tricky. It is important for the mentor to honor the rights, privacy, and confidentiality of the mentee in both public and professional settings.
It is also a good idea to provide the mentor with some suggestions appropriate for the particular case of mentoring a new group member. Here are some suggestions for mentors:
- Dedicate time to adequately support the youth;
- Meet and orient the youth prior to the first meeting;
- Reach out to the parents or guardian of the youth;
- Arrange to meet youth before and after subsequent meetings to prepare, process and answer any questions that a youth might have;
- Train the youth in the appropriate skill sets for their role in a particular meeting;
- Involve youth in developing content and, if possible, setting the time and location for the meeting;
- Explain a few of the more commonly used Roberts Rules of Order, or other group decision making protocol used, particularly how to make a motion and second a motion and how to make requests for the floor and the agenda.
In addition to having youth in your group, consider some of these other possibilities for youth involvement.
- An Ad Hoc Committee or Task Force – a short-term entity that is created for a specific purpose.
- A Youth Advisory Council, Commission, or Adjunct Body – a group of people who have been appointed to provide general and specific advice, perspective, and direction on an issue/issues.
- Focus Group – an informal group providing input on recommendations/decisions about youth programs / policies.
- A Mini-Grant Program – a group of youth that determine who will receive small grants for a specific youth-related project or initiative.