Once you have begun preparing for authentically including youth voice in your organization, it is important to begin considering different strategies for engaging youth. It is important that once you have youth who are willing to work with you that you embrace the differences of these young people and help them find their voice. It is these strategies that will provide authenticity in what you learn from them.
Get to Know Youth for Who They Are, Not Who You Think They Are
Every youth is different, and there is no single “youth culture.” Some youth may prefer text messages, while others may dislike technology and prefer inperson meetings. Don’t assume that because something is true for other youth that it is also true for every single youth.
Create a Safe Space
Organizations sometimes worry that sharing stories and using lived experience will act as a trigger for retraumatization. These concerns are well-intentioned and valid but they can also inhibit a youth from being open and honest. Steps should be taken to prepare youth for difficult conversations and to avoid triggers, but remember that they are strong and resilient. Recovery often comes through sharing, not silence or isolation. Dedicate time to getting to know each other; this will bring context to your work and will increase the youth’s investment in the work.
If there is something that you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask. Youth are often willing to serve as teachers and would rather provide answers than for you to operate on previous assumptions.
If you say that you are going to do something, do it. Many youth are used to adults failing to follow through on things that they have said they will do.
Engagement does not end at the close of a regular work day. It is important that youth know that you are available if they should need to talk to someone.
Youth have a keen ability to know whether you are genuine in your desire to understand their experiences and advocate for their voices to be heard. They will not generally tolerate inauthenticity. Most importantly, be yourself.
Acknowledge and affirm the strengths and interests that youth have to offer. Focus on positive behaviors and interests. Provide opportunities that will help to further grow and develop these strengths and utilize these strengths to create positive change.
Be aware of the experiences that youth may have gone through and the role that trauma may play in those narratives. Work to identify and prevent anything that could be triggering or retraumatizing. For example, you may want to develop group agreements that include how to address sensitive topics or conflict. You may also want to consider developing personal safety plans. Being trauma informed does not mean being overprotective or micromanaging youth, but rather building relationships with youth so that you can be aware of how to best support and respond to each individual youth.
Authentic youth engagement requires building meaningful relationships, which in turn often requires the ability to be vulnerable. If youth are willing to step out and share their stories, it is only fair that you are also willing to share your experiences.
Youth aren’t looking for someone who has life all figured out and together. Be willing to share your strengths and acknowledge your shortcomings. Take responsibility when something doesn’t go as planned.
Successful youth engagement requires being proactive and the ability to see into the future. It is often tempting to use our collective voice to address a number of issues, which can diffuse our power. Focus on those activities which amplify your voice and align with the mission and vision.
Youth want to be heard and know that you care about what they are saying. Listening is not the same as hearing. Listen to what is being said explicitly as well as any underlying messages.
Talk With Youth, Not At Them
Youth want to know that they are valued and respected. Talking at youth or speaking down to them can feel degrading and dehumanizing. Youth want to know that you care enough to develop relationships and talk with them, rather than only communicating when you have something that you need done. Youth will see through any agendas that you may have. Effective communication requires a twoway commitment.
Meet Youth Where They Are
Understand that youth may not always have the time, interest, or ability to take part in your work. This does not mean that your engagement efforts should stop. Continue building your relationship with them and let them know that there are opportunities available if and when they are interested and able to be a part of the work.
Youth are often going to be asked to provide a rationale for their thoughts and ideas. By being challenged in a respectful, safe environment, they are able to grow in confidence and their ability to fully own their ideas.
Find Out Where Youth Spend Their Time
This location may differ depending on which youth you are hoping to engage. Some communities may also not have a safe place for youth to spend their time. In these cases, it may be helpful to examine the resources available and try to develop such a place.
Learn to Delegate
There are many steps that you can take to engage youth in the opportunities available, but your engagement efforts cannot be youth-guided if you are doing all of the work. Youth-adult partnerships imply equal responsibility.
Authentic youth engagement often takes a culture shift and a change in one’s way of thinking. These changes sometimes take longer than desired. Don’t let this pace discourage you. Keep pushing and persevere. The reward is well worth the effort.
Regardless of whether it’s a giant success that everybody recognizes or another small step on a larger journey, find a way to celebrate that is significant to you and share that celebration with others, especially youth. Celebration may not always be a giant party. Small celebrations can go just as far.
Remember Your Own Journey
We were all youth once. While we may not have had the same experiences as our youth partners, many of us know what it’s like to be a youth without a voice. Let those experiences guide and motivate you.