Five Steps to More Meaningful Youth Engagement

JBS International, Inc.

My name is Matthew French and I work for JBS International, Inc. This blog draws upon research conducted under contract with USAID’s office of Education (read the full youth engagement report here), as well as my own experiences working with young people.

Today’s young leaders are taking on a variety of meaningful and dynamic roles in development organizations. As board members, lobbyists, activists, entrepreneurs, designers, experts, trainers, and researchers, youth are driving their own destinies by taking part in decisions that affect them and their communities. For example, Restless Development, an international youth-led development agency, supports a project in which local young people lead action research aimed at finding solutions to complex challenges in the turbulent Karamoja region of Northern Uganda. These young researchers have produced several excellent products, including Strength, Creativity, and Livelihoods of Karimojong Youth.

So, in a world of talented, energetic, and motivated young people, how can we facilitate meaningful youth engagement? The first step is to disabuse ourselves of the notion that it is easy, self-sustaining, or even always a good thing. Done right, engaging youth can lead to more relevant programming and help build competent young leaders—if done wrong, however, young people can become disillusioned and valuable resources wasted.

An advisory group, for example, can be a great avenue for youth input, or even shared decision-making. Such groups can help set policy, collect information on the needs of young people, and provide solutions for programming challenges. But if young people are brought in without sufficient training and support, or if they are promised a voice without any mechanism to include their input, the efforts will likely be frustrating for all involved and have little chance of success.

To include youth in a more meaningful way, consider the following steps: 1) involve youth in design and decision-making from the beginning; 2) have a clear purpose and thorough implementation plan; 3) identify and secure the necessary resources; 4) empower young people by offering them meaningful roles that align with their skills, experience, and interests; 5) provide young people with the support and training they need to succeed.

1. Include youth from the start

In any youth engagement effort, young people should be involved in design and decision-making from the beginning. As one young woman from Advocates for Youth said, “Young people are the experts of their own experience.” Even the most in-tune adult allies cannot understand youth needs as well as young people themselves. Partner with young people in all steps, from assessing your organization’s readiness to designing an implementation plan. And, as adults are sometimes uncomfortable with young people filling traditionally adult roles, adults should be trained on topics such as positive youth development and how to work with youth on multigenerational teams.

2. Develop a clear purpose and implementation plan

Establishing goals and objectives up front will inform the format of your youth engagement activities, provide direction for program designers, define desired outcomes, and help you get buy-in from decision-makers. What are the expected results? Will youth have an actual say in the decision-making process or will you simply solicit their advice? Will the effort be attached to specific programming as a feedback mechanism, or will the youth be offering insight into more general global issues (e.g., the post-2015 agenda)? Once the purpose has been defined, develop an implementation plan that lays out resources, staff allocations, recruitment and training strategies, dissemination of products/findings, and monitoring and evaluation activities. An important consideration when designing any youth engagement initiative is to create an inclusive environment that recruits young people of different genders and ethnicities, those with disabilities, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Also, remember that youth engagement efforts vary greatly in format and context. While it is important to approach these types of initiatives systematically, no standardized template exists. Flexibility in design and implementation, which incorporates youth input and feedback, is essential for a successful program.

3. Identify and secure resources

A critical component of the implementation plan is to estimate what resources will be needed for a successful initiative. Financial support ranges from stipends for youth volunteers to small grants for youth-led organizations (e.g., UN-HABITAT’s Urban Youth Fund). Human resources might include coordination, training, supervision, and mentorship. The process of identifying resources should include an inventory of your organization’s existing youth engagement efforts, which will help inform program planning, focus capacity-building efforts, and help you leverage all possible resources. As part of the inventory effort, you might conduct a “youth audit” to assess your organization’s readiness to implement youth engagement activities. For example, the audit might ask questions about organizational policies and procedures, staff attitudes toward youth participation, and youth inclusion in current decision-making processes. UNFPA/Nepal has created a useful audit tool called the Youth Scorecard that might be appropriate to assess your organization’s readiness to include youth.

4. Provide young people with meaningful roles

Youth roles will vary depending on the implementation plan, but it is essential that young people are valued, empowered, and afforded an opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways. If young people will be involved in advocacy efforts—such as ActionAid’s Activista global youth network—empower them by letting them choose topics, design campaigns, conduct outreach activities, and plan events. If you are forming an advisory board, ensure that young people have space to freely express themselves and that decision makers within your organization will utilize their input. Creating a feedback and learning loop will allow continuous program modification based on youth input.

5. Provide the right support and training

While empowerment is a critical component of any youth engagement effort, this does not translate to a sink-or-swim approach. It is important to provide young people with the support they need to succeed, which may include training, mentorship, facilitation, coordination, and protection. You must walk a fine line between empowerment and support: too much support stifles and too little can set young people up to fail.

Advocates for Youth conducts an annual weeklong Urban Retreat that exemplifies this type of support. Young activists gather in Washington, D.C., to share experiences, receive training, and apply their developing skills in lobbying their congressional representatives regarding sexual and reproductive health issues. While adults take a strong facilitation and coordination role, young people conduct some of the training themselves and help shape the retreat. These types of events also act to build strong communities and support networks that are critical to the development of young leaders.

Keep in mind when following these steps that it is key to weave youth engagement into your organizational culture. It is essential that young people and adults create an environment where power is shared and youth perspectives are valued. Building this type of youth-friendly space in which young people are deeply involved in various organizational programs and processes will guard against tokenism and help ensure a meaningful experience that benefits all involved.