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More than a seat at the table: A resource for authentic and equitable youth engagement

Author: 
Rebecca Reyes and Malana Rogers-Bursen

If you’re working on creating change in your community, it’s important to include all kinds of people in decision-making, including young people. The insight and talents of young people can bring value to any community change effort, yet community groups led by older adults sometimes find it hard to involve younger people, or keep them engaged.

We’ve led workshops on youth engagement to help people explore challenges they may face and think about possible solutions. People of all ages and from many sectors contributed their ideas for successfully engaging young people in their efforts. We’ve compiled a number of challenges that you may have encountered in your work or that may come up in the future, along with ways to address these challenges in your group.

There are many barriers young people can face that prevent them from getting involved. The barrier may be logistical, such as a meeting time or location. Even when we get young people to the table, they might not feel like they have an equal voice or decision making power.

Whenever we bring young people onto a planning team or steering committee, we need to make sure they’re making a meaningful contribution. Think back to how you were involved as a young person. Would you have been satisfied if you were asked to join a sports team, but were never allowed to play? What about if you volunteered with a group, but weren’t given any specific task to do? Or if you didn’t see the impact you were making at your workplace, however small?

Ultimately, the goal is to create intergenerational work with equitable relationships. This means that young people not only have a seat at the table and contribute in a meaningful way, but they are also a key part of decision-making. Engagement is just the first step.Participants at Everyday Democracy's 2016 Convening, The Moment is Now: Democracy For All

Before you bring young people onto the team, it’s good practice to have a conversation about why it’s important to include young people and how you envision them contributing. Make sure everyone is on board and understands young people’s value.

Another important step is setting ground rules. This can help make sure that people have equal voice in meetings and respect for each individual’s opinion regardless of age.

The challenges and solutions you’ll read about can come into play no matter which age range you’re targeting, but you should define as a group what you mean by “youth” or “young people.” We define “youth” as anyone who is middle school and high school age, typically between the ages of 12-18. We define “young adult” as anyone between the ages of 18-30, and “young people” as anyone under 30. It’s also important to recognize that there are many different experiences people may have, even within these age ranges.

Note that young people aren’t the only ones who might face some of the challenges listed below. When you address these barriers, you’re being inclusive of many groups of people.

This is an in-depth list that is meant to be used as a reference whenever issues arise. Feel free to scroll through the list of scenarios and solutions, or click one of the links below to jump to a specific challenge:

 

Challenge: Understand how young people can contribute

Scenario: 

Your planning team has been around for many years and most of the original members are still involved. The group is now almost entirely made up of people over 55. Your team discusses the fact that they need to bring younger people into the effort. When they mention new candidates who they consider to be younger, they’re referring to people in their 40’s. One team member suggests connecting with some local high school or college groups to recruit a younger demographic. Some of the decision-makers don’t think the team should invite high school or college students to participate because they think people in those age groups won’t have much to contribute. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Before bringing on young people, discuss why you want to go in this direction.
  • Ask the adults in the group what their fears are with inviting young people to join the team. Validate their feelings and discuss strategies to overcome their fears.
  • Take some time to talk about what kinds of activities the team members participated in as young adults and young people. Sometimes reconnecting with some of their experiences as a young person can help them be more open to bringing on younger people to their team.
  • As a group, work to challenge assumptions. Implement a process you can use in your own group to identify when biases are clouding your decisions.
  • Identify clear ways young people can contribute to the group.

Challenge: Making meetings and events appealing to young people

Scenario:

Your team always makes an effort to reach out to youth and young adults to be part of the planning process and to attend the events. Even though you put a significant amount of effort into recruiting young people, very few young people show up for the events and not many attend more than one or two of the planning meetings. You suspect that the meetings and events are missing some elements that would attract young people. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Examine any logistics of the meeting that may prevent young people from coming, and make necessary adjustments. For example: the time and place, transportation issues, and acknowledging that younger students are busy and often need parent permission.
  • Take a look at how your team has been recruiting youth. Brainstorm some new recruitment tactics or groups to reach out to.
  • Talk with some of the youth in your network. Ask them why they may or may not join the team. Try some of their ideas for recruiting more youth.
  • Make sure the meetings themselves are a welcoming environment for youth.
  • Make sure young people see and understand that they will be a valuable part of the team.
  • Communicate the value for them. For example, they may be able to count their participation as service hours or work on a project that they can add to their resume.
  • Provide incentives to join.
  • If your recruitment efforts continue to fail, recognize that youth may simply not be interested in being involved in this part of the process. Make sure there are other meaningful ways youth can contribute.
     

Challenge: Young people may not be aware of unspoken norms and practices

Scenario:

People of all ages are part of a planning committee you’re involved in. Older members have been part of the planning committee for many years. However, for the youngest members, this may be the first time participating in a team like this. There are many unspoken norms that the youngest and newest members are unaware of which make it difficult for them to participate fully. For example, older members often use a lot of jargon when mentioning organizations or describing certain ways of doing things, many of the older members come early or stay late to chat and end up making decisions without the entire team, and younger team members never offer to bring the snack because they aren’t sure if or how to get reimbursed for the expense. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Make space in each meeting to answer any questions about language used or how the team is run.
  • Celebrate questions and engagement in the group.
  • Set up an orientation for all new members so they can learn how the process works.
  • As a team, work to stop using acronyms and jargon during meetings and in your communication materials.
  • Recognize that new people may have different ideas and ways of working. Be open to hearing their ideas and implementing new ways of running meetings or doing projects.
  • Create an anonymous space to ask questions about language – for example a white board. This way people can ask questions about what they don’t know without feeling embarrassed.
  • Give new members a glossary of terms.

Challenge: Experience barriers

Scenario:

The people on your planning team come from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. In one of the meetings, a young person suggests an idea for a flyer design. A more experienced group member suggests something different and adds, “I have 25 years of experience in publishing, so we should go with my idea.” The young person shuts down and doesn’t add anything else to the conversation that day. This kind of scenario happens at many of the meetings – when a young person suggests an idea, someone with more experience overshadows their idea. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Validate feelings from older adults that they may be threatened by young people or worried that their experience isn't valuable.
  • As a group, work on recognizing the value of different perspectives, particularly those of young people.
  • Establish ground rules as a group that includes respecting differences and refer to them during meetings as needed.
  • Committee chairs should have a separate discussion with people who often shut down conversations. Ensure they make space for everyone's experiences, including those of young people.
  • Evaluate who should do the project based on how well they've done similar projects in the past instead of how many years of experience they have. For example, you might have people who are interested in the project submit samples of their work and have the team choose the right person for the job based on the samples.
  • Actively create meaningful opportunities for involvement for young people. Encourage young people to work on projects that make a wide impact and affect the whole community. Don't just have young people work on projects that affect other young people.
  • Use this as an opportunity for an older and younger person to work together on a project. Make sure they both play an equal part in the project and that the older person isn't simply dictating what the younger person should do.
  • Equip older adults to respond to these kinds of scenarios in the moment and advocate for the younger people in the group if necessary.

Challenge: The norms and practices are set and communicated by adults

Scenario:

A number of youth are excited about joining your planning committee. They bring energy and unique perspective to the team. But, they also want to have fun. They suggest dance parties, community gatherings, and games. The adults respond that that’s not how they’ve done things in the past and they don’t have time or resources to incorporate these ideas. The youth start to lose interest in the meetings and in the work. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Revisit why the group decided to involve young people in the planning for the process.
  • Add more youth to the planning team, or have youth create their own sub-committee. This can ensure that there are enough people to plan those kinds of events and that their voices are heard.
  • Work as a group to be open to the ideas of young people before you invite them to join the committee.

Challenge: Young people have limited voice in meetings

Scenario:

Your steering committee has teamed up with a high school club to help design an upcoming community event. There are three high school students and ten adults that are part of this team. In the meetings you notice that people from the high school group rarely add their opinion or suggest ideas. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

Recognize the value young people will bring to your group:

  • Before inviting young people, discuss ways to prepare adults to accept youth decision-making and ways to prepare youth to be decision-makers.
  • Make sure bringing in younger people is a true collaboration and not simply an invitation to become a token "youth" member of the group. From the beginning, recognize the value they bring and make sure it's a mutually beneficial relationship. 
  • The adults could meet separately to explore how their behavior can shut down or exclude youth.

Intentionally listen to the experiences of younger people in the group:

  • Have young people share their experiences with the group in a facilitated conversation so they have the space to discuss any challenges they're facing in contributing to the group.
  • Plan a separate meeting to hear from youth stakeholders to ensure that their voice is heard.
  • Have the adults reach out to the students one-on-one to begin establishing a relationship.

Create a welcoming meeting structure:

  • As a group, explore how decisions are made and try new ways to run the meeting that may make it easier for young people to contribute.
  • When the meeting organizer asks the group for suggestions or ideas, go around the room so everyone has a chance to share their opinion instead of the people who are the loudest.
  • Examine the meeting structure - are the meetings long? Is it difficult for youth to access the meetings? Is the location and time accessible? Make sure the environment is youth-friendly.
  • Rotate facilitation of the meeting so both adults and youth share this kind of role in the meeting equally.
  • Instead of voicing opinions or ideas out loud, have people write ideas on a small piece of paper. That gives people time to formulate their ideas and is another way to make space for everyone to contribute.
  • Integrate ways to evaluate and improve the meetings, anonymously if necessary.

Challenge: Allowing young people to try something that didn’t work in the past

Scenario:

People of all ages are part of the planning committee you’re involved in. You’re noticing a pattern in the meetings --whenever a younger person offers an idea, older adults quickly dismiss it because “we’ve tried that before.” Since the older adults hold positions with decision-making power, there isn’t further discussion about whether that idea could be tried again in a different way. Young people feel like their ideas and opinions don’t matter. They eventually stop offering ideas and coming to meetings. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Address the “elephant in the room” that young people have stopped attending – ask the committee why they think that is.
  • Be clear about the purpose of young people being a part of the planning committee – the benefit for the planning committee and the benefit for the young people.
  • Establish ground rules as a group and refer to them during meetings as needed.
  • Be aware of knowledge gaps. Understand that young people may not know the history of different projects. Explain why a particular idea did not work. Also be open to hearing from young people about how their idea might be different.
  • Have the young person who presented the idea and the older adult who was involved in a similar project partner to work on the idea together. That way, the younger person can learn from the mistakes that were made in the past while still having the opportunity to implement a new way of doing things.
  • Use this as an opportunity for young people to develop skills to advocate for themselves. Older adults can mentor younger team members on how to get their ideas heard.

Challenge: One young person is asked to be the voice for their peers

Scenario:

Someone on the steering committee had the idea to bring a young person they know onto the committee. This young person is engaged, motivated and excited to take on new work. The adults on the committee turn to this young person for all advice about that age group. The group begins to think that all young people think like this person and like what they like. The young person also begins to feel burnt out and didn’t realize they signed up to be a liaison for other young people. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Be clear about why you want young people to join the team and what role they'll play. Truly listen to the ideas of the younger people in the group.
  • Make sure you don't have just one young person on your team. It's helpful to have a group so they can support each other and don't feel outnumbered.
  • Have everyone in the group contribute their ideas for recruiting more young people or designing a youth-focused event, not just the young people in the group.
  • Assign one or more adults to check in with the young people in the group periodically to make sure they feel valued and to answer any questions they may have.

 

Challenge: The same young people are always invited

Scenario:

Your steering committee is striving to engage people of all ages in every aspect of the work. Many of the steering committee members have children who are teenagers or young adults who often participate. Your team also reaches out to the student government associations at the local high schools and colleges to recruit young people. Even though you’ve made these initial efforts to engage a younger demographic, the diversity of the steering committee doesn’t necessarily reflect the diversity of the community. And, because everyone is from similar backgrounds, you don’t have as many new ideas as you had expected. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Have the young people who are part of your network participate in reaching out to more diverse youth.
  • Have youth plan a recruiting event.
  • Make connections with organizations that serve young people in the areas you're trying to reach.
  • Focus on increasing the diversity of the adults in the group to expand the networks you can reach.
  • Partner with teachers so they can nominate students instead of having students self-select.
  • Be clear in your communications that you value diversity in identities, experiences and opinions.

 

Challenge: Microaggressions get in the way of building bridges between generations and cultural and racial identities

Scenario:

You’re part of a community that has become much more diverse in the last ten years. Many of the long-time residents are older, come from a white racial background, and are used to living and working with people who come from a similar background. Many of the new residents are younger and come from very diverse backgrounds. You’re planning your yearly neighborhood block party and have done a great job of getting people from different ages and diverse backgrounds to join the planning committee.  However, sometimes during meetings the long-time residents make offensive comments: they refer to diverse neighborhoods as “the United Nations” or say they’re “full of gangs,” mistake new members of color for janitors, and repeatedly tell young people of color how “articulate” they are. These microaggressions, or subtle but offensive comments, further divide the team instead of building bridges. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • Make space for a facilitated dialogue with all members of the group to address these issues.
  • Educate the team about microagressions and come up with ways to hold each other accountable during meetings.
  • Do trust-building activities to bring the group together and build common ground.
  • Attend anti-racism trainings.

 

Challenge: Decisions made by planning teams don’t reflect the diversity of the community

Scenario:

You’re part of a community that has become much more diverse in the last ten years. Many of the long-time residents are older, come from a white racial background, and are used to living and working with people who come from a similar background. Many of the new residents are younger and come from very diverse backgrounds. You’re planning your yearly neighborhood block party and have done a great job of getting people from different ages and diverse backgrounds to join the planning committee. Even though the planning team is diverse, the opinions of the long-time residents who are mostly white seem to dominate the conversation and the decision-making. The selection of food, music, games, vendors, and speakers don’t reflect the diversity of your community. How can you overcome this challenge?

Strategies:

  • As a group, discuss: Who is the block party for? Is it really for the neighborhood, or just for older residents?
  • Revisit the purpose of the event. If the goal is truly to bring the neighborhood together, it has to reflect the diversity of the community.
  • Discuss the assets these new residents bring. How can you welcome them and highlight some of their contributions?
  • Make sure there's space in your meetings for team members to offer new ways of doing things.
Issues: 

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