Youth involvement can benefit organizations and their programs as well as the youth themselves. Programs that are developed in partnership with youth are more likely to be effective at engaging the population and, therefore, to have a greater impact. Involving youth as partners in making decisions that affect them increases the likelihood that the decisions will be accepted, adopted, and become part of their everyday lives. In addition, empowering youth to identify and respond to community needs helps them become empathetic, reflective individuals, setting them on a course to potentially continue this important work in their future. Meaningful youth engagement views youth as equal partners with adults in the decision-making process. Programs and activities are developed with youth, rather than for youth. In this kind of equal partnership, both adults and young people need to be fully engaged, open to change in how things are done, and share a unified vision for the partnership.
Considerations for organizations that want to involve youth in a meaningful way
Here are some suggested steps to consider when trying to engage young people and ensure the experience is meaningful for the youth as well as for the program.
Complete the Youth Infusion Self-Assessment. Consider where your program currently is on the continuum of youth engagement and where you would like to be. Not every program or activity can or should always involve youth at Level 5. Youth’s level of involvement may vary based on the capacity of program staff to spend time and resources on involving youth, the purpose of involving youth, and support within the organization for involving youth. Organizational infrastructure and support for involving youth are key concerns for sustainability of youth involvement.
- Look at your organization’s programs and determine where it would be most beneficial and feasible to involve youth. Define the purpose of involving youth in the selected activity. Based on the purpose, determine how to engage youth and the most appropriate level of involvement.
- Talk with other organizations and agencies that are already partnering with youth to learn how they went about doing this and any recommendations they have. Collaborating with other organizations that are engaging youth may help you avoid implementation challenges that others have faced.
- Identify how you will recruit youth and how you will keep them engaged in the process. Issues to consider are how to recruit youth who are representative of the population you serve, what skills and capabilities the youth need, and what training should be provided.
- Provide training for organization staff who will be working with youth to ensure they have an understanding of the rationale and purpose of partnering with youth, how it will benefit both the program and the youth, and the skills necessary to effectively work with youth.
- Develop a plan to review and monitor the youth involvement process.
- Engage the youth and adults to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of involving youth in the organization and program as well as its impact on the youth themselves.
- Share successes and challenges with others.
Ways to involve youth throughout the life of a program
There are many ways youth can be involved in organizational decision-making structures and program development. Involving youth from the beginning of a project is ideal; suggestions about how and where youth can be involved include the following:
An example of a needs assessment is the GIS (geographic information system) project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through which youth identified resources in their communities. The resources were uploaded into a community-wide map, which was then used to inform community leaders about existing gaps and challenges. Learn more about Youth Mapping.
Youth provide an excellent source of human and social capital within communities. Their networks consist of their peers as well as family members and adult friends who have access to local resources. Several federally funded programs are soliciting youth leadership in order to identify local priorities and achieve more meaningful results. These programs are tapping into the expertise of young people, relying on them to help determine the needs of their communities.
Identifying strategies to meet needs
The National 4-H Council's Engaging Youth, Serving Communities project requires adults to work with youth to organize community forum. The forum can be facilitated in partnership or solely by youth to discuss the needs of the community and how to devise a plan to address the needs.
Developing strategies/program activities
Youth can help create activities that will be of particular interest to their peers while effectively conveying program content. Many are familiar with age-appropriate team building exercises and activities that can be incorporated.
Promoting program/activities to other youth and adults
Youth should have a lead role in promoting and presenting information about the program and the activities that will be offered. Recruiting youth and getting them to participate in programs and activities can be strengthened when their peers describe what is available and how these opportunities were developed based on youth interests. Youth can also identify locations (e.g., libraries, schools, and recreational centers) that are frequented by potential participants.
School health councils/youth advisory boards
Communities are taking the voices of youth more seriously. In rural and urban areas alike, youth are participating in governing bodies such as library councils, parks and recreations boards, school boards, and even city councils. Many of these leadership groups give youth full voting privileges. Although this may not be allowed by some organizations, youth can still be given a chance to be heard as representatives of the communities in which they live.
Curriculum selection committees
Organizations and agencies are concerned about retaining youth within their programs. Before selecting a particular curriculum to use with a target audience or even after a curriculum has been selected, it may be advantageous to have youth assist in reviewing curricula or training materials to determine whether they will be appropriate for a specific age group and population.
Providing technical assistance on youth culture: How to effectively engage youth/how to work with youth
Youth can train adults who are interested in learning about youth culture. Youth can share what interests youth in general, conduct seminars on the relevance and use of innovative technologies such as web-based social networking, or serve on a panel to talk about what it takes to engage today’s youth.
Participating in action research
Young people make excellent data collectors. As they contribute to tasks such as conducting interviews, taking photos, and reviewing feedback from surveys, they are also developing analytical skills that can serve them well in other roles.
Developing evaluation instruments
Youth can brainstorm to create survey questions with adults. Once a draft of the survey is completed, youth can fill out the instrument and then provide feedback on what items were clear and unclear.
Developing criteria for success
Soliciting honest feedback from youth will help build methods into the evaluation process that can strengthen a program or project. Youth can provide insight on what outcomes they would like to see as a result of program efforts.
Collecting evaluation data
Youth can take photographs of the final results of project work, administer surveys, conduct structured interviews, and participate in focus groups.
Assisting in analyzing results
With the assistance of adults, youth can learn how to enter data into software programs, read through data to sort out common themes, and help with interpreting comments, reactions, and behaviors generated by participants. A guide (e.g., observation protocol) describing what to look for during the analysis may be helpful. The Youth Involvement and Engagement Assessment Tool can help assist organizations and community partnerships in determining how they involve youth in programs, whether youth are becoming more engaged in the community, and if certain strategies are helping to retain youth.
Once youth have had a role in all levels of a program, most are more than willing to share the results of their hard work. Giving them the opportunity to share what a difference the experience has made in their lives will also resonate with the audience. This is very important if youth are presenting information to local leaders who can serve as potential partners and also help make a difference in the community.
2008 Positive Youth Development Toolkit: Engaging Youth in Program Development, Design, Implementation, and Service Delivery
This toolkit offers practical strategies for collaborating with youth. It includes information on partnering with youth, the purpose of PYD, glossary of PYD language, strategies for implementing PYD in an organization, and sample focus group questions to solicit youth input.
Center for Collaborative Action Research
The Center for Collaborative Action Research links educators, researchers, and community members with the goal of creating a deep understanding of educational problems within the school context and to encourage evidence-based reasoning to solve these problems.
Engaging Youth in Work Experiences
This Innovative Strategies Practice brief provides practical examples and resources used by promising and exemplary youth programs that engage youth in work experiences. The youth programs featured in this brief have been recognized as Innovative Strategies by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth.
Improving Public Health through Youth Development
This supplement to the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice (November 2006) presents and discusses youth development approaches in the context of public health programs. The purpose of the supplement is to acquaint public health practitioners with the basic concepts of youth development and to provide guidance on how to put these concepts into practice.
Participatory Evaluation with Young People (PDF, 52 pages)
This guide provides tools and learning activities to use in a community to practice participatory evaluation, including evaluation questions, steps in the process, methods of gathering information, and strategies for creating change.
Reconnecting Youth and Community: A Youth Development Approach
This resource focuses on how communities can shift from a problem-focused approach to serving youth to a community-youth involvement model that captures the talents, abilities, and worth of youth.
Youth-Adult Partnerships in Evaluation (Y-AP/E) (PDF, 48 pages)
This resource guide is intended to help translate research into practice by identifying the most important “leverage points” that have come out of more recent research on youth participatory research and Y-AP in evaluation. Several tip sheets are provided that cover topics such as understanding the fundamentals of evaluation research, preparing for the most significant challenges of Y-AP/E, and creating a supportive organizational culture for Y-AP/E.
Youth Infusion Self-Assessment (PDF, 7 pages)
This tool is designed to assess your organization’s readiness to engage young people and develop a plan to involve youth. It begins with challenging you to think about your organization’s rationale for wanting to engage young people and asks about definitions, structure, process, and dynamics to reflect on how your organization is set up and the ways in which work gets done.
School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth
This publication identifies six strategies that teachers, administrators and other school staff, and parents can implement to increase the extent to which students feel connected to school.