This is What Youth-Led Looks Like

Text: When youth movements are youth-led, that's when true change happens.

Imagine a work environment where meetings start with music, where workers communicate with emojis and GIFs, and where mental health is prioritized.

For many adults, those elements do not bring to mind a professional work culture. But for the creators of Youth Action Hour, this is what the workday looks like. The youth-led team has built a work culture that allows members to speak a shared language and accomplish goals effectively.

Youth Action Hour (YAH) is a youth of color-led media initiative focused on amplifying the power of young leaders across the United States. The group creates short, accessible, and shareable content for social media on issues affecting their lives—including civic engagement, education access, climate change, and economic equity. The goal of their content is to educate peers, demystify policy, and build collective action through the power of storytelling.

YAH is truly led by young people from design to production. Its model flips traditional approaches; an adult advisory group supports the YAH team by offering advice and input, but the team makes all decisions about content, events, and budget.

“We are our audience. We are the young people we are making content for,” says 21-year-old project director Dillon Bernard.

Responding to an Unprecedented Moment

Youth Action Hour began in August 2020, in a moment defined by the global COVID-19 pandemic and a growing national racial reckoning. As funders and national policy organizations came together on Zoom to map a youth-centered economic recovery plan for the new administration, two young leaders in the meeting suggested a different approach. Bernard and Marlén Mendoza, youth consultants for Forum for Youth Investment (a founding partner of Youth Action Hour), offered to reach out to their peers and networks for feedback.

They discovered that something else was also urgently needed: support and space to uplift a new narrative by and about youth, especially Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous and People of Color. These responses led to the creation of Youth Action Hour, where a content team is made up entirely of young people of color ages 17 to 27.

Youth Action Hour meets young people where they are—on social media platforms including Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. It creates profiles of young leaders, shares short videos on policy issues, connects art and social issues, and holds monthly events. By encouraging action locally and nationally, the team is making civic engagement fun and empowering. They are bridging a gap and connecting young people to causes.

“Once the faces, once the ages, once the cultural background of the people matches our own, it’s a lot easier to close that distance,” says Huma Kazi, the team’s 23-year-old executive assistant.

And their strategy is working. They are finding there is a real desire for young people to learn about policy issues that affect their lives and how they can advocate for change.

So far, Youth Action Hour has produced five monthly events featuring 90 youth speakers and artists, engaging more than 5,000 people. The team has also produced profile videos of a dozen young leaders, with more than 2,500 views.

In April 2021, the team presented an hour-long video special titled Young People Address the Nation on the 100th day of the Biden-Harris administration to give young people a platform to speak out on immigration, climate, education, justice, and economic opportunity. By working closely with more than 30 partner organizations with expertise on these issues, YAH collected timely, factual information and translated it into content designed for younger viewers.

Shifting Power, Authentically

Youth Action Hour isn’t just effective or powerful because young people are in the driver’s seat. It works because the adults supporting the program know to get out of the way.

Youth Action Hour is supported by an adult advisory council that offers assistance, when asked, and connects the YAH team to useful networks. Unlike many other nonprofits, the YAH team has access to skill-building from each other and from youth and adult mentors. Adults passionate about youth-led work include Olivia Thai, who works at Casey Family Programs, a founding partner of Youth Action Hour. As a research specialist on the strategic engagements and initiatives team at Casey, Thai develops strategies that reduce the need for foster care and increase community-led solutions that promote the well-being of children, families, and communities.

Traditional philanthropy is hierarchical, with decision-making largely coming from white males, she says. Philanthropy needs to shift and trust those on the ground doing the work.

“You see funders come in and they tell folks to do X, Y, and Z, rather than providing folks with the resources that they need. Who knows better what needs to be done than the community?” Thai says. This way of working may feel uncomfortable to funders, but they’ll need to embrace the discomfort if they truly want to fund innovative and different programs, she says.

“Who knows better what needs to be done than the community?”
- Olivia Thai, Casey Family Programs

The YAH team say they appreciate the support and the boundaries around the adults’ involvement. “Basically, they help us get our foot in the door and once we’re in the door, it’s youth-led again,” says Maya Muldrew, a 23-year-old content producer. “We’re producing, we’re creating, we’re writing.”

In this way, YAH demonstrates the qualities of authentic youth engagement. Not only does the team feel respected and trusted by the adults supporting the work, the team itself has cultivated a collaborative, respectful, and transparent work atmosphere among themselves. And their chill, free-flowing environment is generating visionary work because team members feel confident pitching ideas and asking questions.

“I feel comfortable. I feel like I’m more myself. I don’t feel I have to be very formal,” says Mendoza, 27, YAH’s partnerships and community engagement director. In other youth programming spaces led by adults, Mendoza has felt like the token young person in the room, asked to speak on behalf of youth. But at YAH, there’s less pressure and her colleagues are younger than she is, not older.

Another issue with adult spaces is that they rarely speak the language of young people, internally or externally. But a work environment where young people are communicating on Slack chats, rating ideas with emojis, and being open about what they are experiencing in their lives reimagines what a paid, professional work experience can look like.

“Being on the same page as everyone, communication-wise, really makes it easier to get work done more efficiently,” says Cailin Lansang, a 19-year-old content producer.

Under Bernard’s leadership, the team is encouraged to be honest about tasks they can get done and to prioritize self-care and mental health. Bernard says he’s experienced work burnout before so he created a work culture where colleagues can be transparent and take breaks when needed. “We don’t do breaking news. Nothing is super urgent. The work can wait,” he says.

These positive aspects of being a part of a youth-led space were set up in the design process. The group had the freedom to develop a workplace and pace that is optimal for them as they create content they are passionate about.

For others wanting to develop a youth-led media program, the Youth Action Hour team says it is important to be intentional about the types of content audiences need and will respond to. There’s so much content on the internet that messages can get lost in the noise. Creators need to know the value they will add, and they need an entrepreneurial spirit that embraces persistence and trial and error.

Mapping What Works

Future youth leaders may be interested to know that Youth Action Hour has begun documenting its innovative process to highlight best practices. That includes guiding principles, the ways they work, and how they set and meet objectives.

Lessons that are emerging from their work include: start virtual meetings with music and an icebreaker to check in and build connection; use emojis to evaluate concepts; keep running notes of all discussions and action steps; and share quick end-of-day “status summaries” for accountability.

As Youth Action Hour moves through its decision-making process, if team members are ever unsure about an idea, all they have to do is ask themselves, “Would I consume it?” Because their age, their race, their gender, and their perspectives are their expertise.

“The lack of experience could either be a real detriment or it can be the most powerful asset that you have,” Bernard says.