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  2. Opportunity Youth
  3. Engaging Opportunity Youth as Leaders

Engaging Opportunity Youth as Leaders

Engaging opportunity youth and former opportunity youth as leaders in research and programming provides many benefits. First, this type of engagement can connect opportunity youth with more experience in developing their leadership skills, while also making positive connections with adults. Second, involving opportunity youth as leaders can help inform development and implementation, further enhancing the effectiveness of research and programming aimed at helping opportunity youth.[1]

Another approach is to engage former opportunity youth as mentors. Their personal experiences with disconnection to school and work gives them a unique and practical perspective that could greatly help youth who are at-risk for becoming disconnected.

Here are a few strategies on how to engage and support opportunity youth as leaders:

  • Regularly collaborating with opportunity youth and acknowledging their input to inform agendas, strategies, and implementation for research and programming.[2]
  • Giving opportunity youth formal roles and responsibilities in workgroups, youth advisory boards, and data collection.[3]
  • Training opportunity youth in research and data collection,[4] and other trainings that can be useful in real-world settings.
  • Interviewing opportunity youth to gain insight from their perspective.[5]
  • Fairly compensating opportunity youth for their work and time.[6]
  • Providing opportunity youth with “human and financial resources, and training on how to make meaningful contributions”[7] as the most successful initiatives involving opportunity youth have done.

It is important to explicitly center racial equity in every aspect of this work, because of the extent to which structural and institutional racism continue to shape outcomes for opportunity youth, including young leaders.


Including All Voices: Achieving Opportunity Youth Collaboration Success through Youth and Adult Engagement (PDF, 14 pages)
This Aspen Institute paper frames a continuum of youth engagement approaches, from initial youth consultation to youth organizing and youth-led change, with examples of significant youth engagement at different points along the continuum. It offers insights into how to equip young people as drivers for local and national efforts to improve outcomes for opportunity youth.

Forgotten and Left Behind: Shifting Narratives and Exploring Policy Solutions for Vulnerable Youth and Young Adults
This report from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), provides key insights and next steps for a multi-generational, multi-racial, youth-centered dialogue around policy change, with young people driving the agenda for a more equitable future.

Transforming Young People and Communities: New Findings on the Impacts of Youth Organizing (PDF, 17 pages)
This summary from the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing examines the growing body of research on youth leadership and youth organizing, its impact on communities, and how it shapes young people's social-emotional and academic development, wellbeing and civic and engagement.

Strengthening a Nascent Field: Lessons from the Building Leadership & Organizing Capacity Initiative (PDF, 24 pages)
From the Connecticut-based Perrin Family Foundation, this report looks at the results to date of state efforts to foster and integrate authentic youth leadership. It includes a one-page infographic summary, Youth Development Outcomes of Youth-Led Social Change and the Youth Engagement Continuum.

Harnessing the Potential of Young Adults: How Programs Are Using Youth Voice, Education, and Workforce Development to Transform Systems (Boston, MA & East Providence, RI)
The American Youth Policy Forum has results from a study tour of three nationally recognized programs in Rhode Island and Massachusetts that are successfully combining youth voice, education, and employment to create a new narrative, and lasting pathways forward, for the young people they serve.



[1] Mendelson, Mmari, Blum, Catalano, & Brindis, 2018

[2] Towns, 2019

[3] Towns, 2019

[4] American Institutes for Research, 2019

[5] Mendelson, Mmari, Blum, Catalano, & Brindis, 2018

[6] American Institutes for Research, 2019

[7] Patton, Sawyer, Santelli, Ross, Afifi, Allen,…Viner, 2016

Other Resources on this Topic

Youth Briefs

How Individualized Education Program (IEP) Transition Planning Makes a Difference for Youth with Disabilities

Youth who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and especially young adults of transition age, should be involved in planning for life after high school as early as possible and no later than age 16. Transition services should stem from the individual youth’s needs and strengths, ensuring that planning takes into account his or her interests, preferences, and desires for the future.

Youth Transitioning to Adulthood: How Holding Early Leadership Positions Can Make a Difference

Research links early leadership with increased self-efficacy and suggests that leadership can help youth to develop decision making and interpersonal skills that support successes in the workforce and adulthood. In addition, young leaders tend to be more involved in their communities, and have lower dropout rates than their peers. Youth leaders also show considerable benefits for their communities, providing valuable insight into the needs and interests of young people

How Trained Service Professionals and Self-Advocacy Makes a Difference for Youth with Mental Health, Substance Abuse, or Co-occurring Issues

Statistics reflecting the number of youth suffering from mental health, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders highlight the necessity for schools, families, support staff, and communities to work together to develop targeted, coordinated, and comprehensive transition plans for young people with a history of mental health needs and/or substance abuse.

Young Adults Formerly in Foster Care: Challenges and Solutions

Nearly 30,000 youth aged out of foster care in Fiscal Year 2009, which represents nine percent of the young people involved in the foster care system that year. This transition can be challenging for youth, especially youth who have grown up in the child welfare system.

Coordinating Systems to Support Transition Age Youth with Mental Health Needs

Research has demonstrated that as many as one in five children/youth have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Read about how coordination between public service agencies can improve treatment for these youth.

Civic Engagement Strategies for Transition Age Youth

Civic engagement has the potential to empower young adults, increase their self-determination, and give them the skills and self-confidence they need to enter the workforce. Read about one youth’s experience in AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).