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Check Your Baggage: Engaging Young People

Let’s face it – we adults come to the table with a lot of baggage. We have many years (perhaps decades) of knowledge and experiences that inform every decision we make. I don’t know about you but I love giving advice to a young person about all my lessons learned even when that advice might not have been specifically requested which is pretty much always (#sorrynotsorry). Sometimes, we, as adults, need to take a step back and learn a thing or two (or 100) from the young people we live and work alongside and check our baggage at the door.

For those working in agencies and organizations looking to better serve or involve young people – this process begins with authenticity.

Authentically Engage: I’m sorry to break this to you but adults don’t have all the answers. However, we have tons of opportunity to engage young people in our work and it should start from day one. Involve young people in the planning process from the very beginning and not let it be an afterthought. We often miss these opportunities until it’s too late so next time you’re planning a conference, developing a program, or recruiting board members – think about how you can authentically engage young people in those processes.

Authentically Build Relationships: Relationship building is the pillar to all community-based work and that’s no different when we’re engaging young people. Building authentic relationships with young people requires us to see young people not as only those we serve or those who need our help but as those who can advance our work with their unique perspective and experience. However, if we want to call on young people to use their expertise we need to build mutual trust and respect first so we avoid tokenizing young people and demonstrate their true value and worth. Let’s face it – even adults want to feel respected and valued for their work.

Authentically Valuing Time: As mentioned above, everyone, regardless of age, wants to feel respected and valued for their work and there’s one way we often demonstrate the opposite of this with young people – we don’t compensate them for their time, for sharing their expertise, nor for any of their labor. If we want to authentically engage and build relationships with young people for their involvement with our organizations and programs, we need to demonstrate that we see them and their expertise as just as valuable as those of adults. We can do this in a multitude of ways from creating specific staff positions, to providing cash stipends and travel reimbursement for attendance at meetings or events, to providing gift cards for their time and effort when stringent agency rules way prevent cash payments. The overall message here is pay young people for their time and expertise.

Authentically Empower: Now that youth have authentically engaged, built relationships, and valued young people at your organization, let’s make sure their voice actually counts. Don’t just appoint a young person to your board, if you’re not willing to listen to their ideas. Don’t hire a young person at your organization, if you’re not invested in their professional growth and development. Do make sure that it’s not only one young person but multiple young people serving on boards or providing feedback on programming – this can help dismantle some power dynamics that often contradict our good intentions when engaging young people.

Want some more resources on youth engagement, check out these excellent organizations:

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