When young people started speaking out after the shooting in Parkland, much of the country realized what many youth-serving organizations have long understood: youth voice is a powerful thing.
But as any advocacy organization also knows, real change takes time, and it often happens when the cameras are off, headlines have moved on, and the issue at hand is no longer new or sensational.
So how can youth-serving organizations and adult allies ensure that the energy around youth voice continues long after the current moment has passed? How can organizations that serve youth better empower young people to voice their opinions and ideas on the issues that affect them the most?
That’s exactly what America’s Promise asked a group of young people and youth development experts in a roundtable discussion led by America’s Promise President and CEO John Gomperts.
Six diverse youth leaders—America’s Promise board member Malcolm Davis; America’s Promise trustees Alexis Creamer and Sanah Jivani; Opportunity Youth United Youth Leaders Humberto Palacios, Shanice Turner, and Ryan Dalton—joined the discussion, along with YouthBuild founder Dorothy Stoneman and Minnesota Alliance With Youth CEO Kori Redepenning.
They all had specific suggestions for how organizations and adults can better elevate youth voice and empower young people—such as paying young people for their time to speak and engage on important issues and making sure all youth-serving organizations have youth councils or youth representation within their leadership—but much of their advice could be distilled into a central theme: When young people share their voices, adults and organizations have to believe those voices truly matter.
In other words, adults and organizations must prove they value youth voice with their actions instead of just paying lip service to the cause. And young people can tell when they don’t.
Adults Need to Believe that “Youth are Powerful”
Shanice Turner from Opportunity Youth United, a youth-led, solutions-oriented council staffed by YouthBuild members, said it’s important to encourage young people to step into positions of leadership, but she said it’s up to adults and organizations to genuinely share power with them.
“We need adults and organizations to know that youth are powerful,” she said. “Outside of meetings, what are you doing?”
Sanah Jivani, an America’s Promise youth trustee, said adults need to help young people see the value in youth stories, because young people don’t often see it themselves.
“They don’t really see that what they have to offer is powerful and that they can use it to make a difference,” she said. “There is power in every young person, and I just don’t think they see that or feel that.”
Alexis Creamer, another America’s Promise youth trustee, said adults are often to blame for pushing that narrative. “I’ve dealt with people who are supposed to be caring adults who make me feel like my story is not adequate enough,” she said. “There are a lot of people engaged in this work who really don’t understand or value what young people go through.”
Adults should research the young people who will be serving on their board, Creamer said, so they know how to better empower them. “Learn how to communicate with [youth] and relate to them in a way that’s loving and makes them feel more comfortable and willing to do more work for you.”
Don’t Use Youth to Fill “Some Type of Quota”
As the CEO of Minnesota Alliance With Youth, which helps young people have a say in their state’s legislation, Redepenning said they would like to get to a point where they can compensate youth for their involvement.
“Adults get paid, and youth don’t,” she said. “They should be, because we’re asking them to share their opinion and it’s valuable.”
She also pointed out that many young people can’t afford to participate in opportunities that allow them to share their voice because they have part-time jobs. “It’s an equity issue,” she said. “You have to think about who can be there after school.”
YouthBuild founder Dorothy Stoneman agreed that youth should be paid for their opinions, and she added that every organization serving young people should do two things: create a youth advisory council and make sure young people are registered to vote.
“If we’re serious about youth voice,” Stoneman said, “then we have to talk about voting.”
The young people all agreed that organizations should have youth councils, but they said engagement with them should be authentic. “Are you really there to value youth voice and understand their story,” Creamer asked, “or are you using it to fill some type of quota?”
“You can tell based on how and when young people show up if it’s authentic or not,” said Opportunity Youth United Member Ryan Dalton. “Make sure youth have actual decision-making power.”
Humberto Palacios, Turner, and America’s Promise Youth board member Malcolm Davis all said it’s important for young people to be able to hold adults and organizations accountable. “We need to be able to hold people accountable, and for you to hold us accountable too,” Turner said.
“My voice is not only valid when I sing the praises of the board,” said Davis. “It’s valid when I speak against it and disagree with something.”
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below: