Bringing Youth Voice to the Table

“We’ve got to make noises in greater amounts so, open your mouth lad! For every voice counts!”- Dr. Seuss

Marcía Hopkins

Marcía Hopkins is a Youth Advocacy Program Manager at the Juvenile Law Center. Marcía facilitates Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy Programs: Youth Fostering Change, Juveniles for Justice, and the Youth Speakers Bureau. She also works closely with our attorneys on various policy-focused projects related to foster youth and transition-aged youth. Marcía earned her master’s degree in social work from Temple University. She graduated with honors from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Prior to joining Juvenile Law Center, Marcía interned for Senator Robert Casey’s office, as part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI).

What does it mean to bring youth voice to the table? Recently, we are finding out about the power of youth voice, such as when Parkland students and youth across the country rallied together in Washington, D.C. at the March for Our Lives to end gun violence. Or when Miami, Florida youth Shatony River spoke about her own experiences as an African American youth experiencing gun violence daily in her community. Or when our own youth advocate Johnathan wrote a piece for Teen Vogue in the Fostered or Forgotten series that ran during National Foster Care Month about his educational experiences as a black male in the foster care system. We know these youth have powerful voices, make significant contributions to our communities, and are change makers.

For many young people, however, speaking up about moments of adversity is not easily done. For youth in the foster care or juvenile justice systems, speaking up is more than just challenging; often, they have been largely excluded from reform efforts while policymakers and other key stakeholders make decisions that will greatly impact their lives. Youth with experience in these systems are often unheard; they fall under the radar or are not provided the support and skills to speak to those in power and share their experiences.

Adults who work with youth should value and create space for their input, expertise, and recommendations. We cannot do this work without them because they are the ones affected by these systems. Their feedback and inclusion are necessary and vital to making informed, youth-centered policies that will impact their lives. Who is more qualified to provide input to change these systems than those who have been most touched by them?

At Juvenile Law Center, we believe strongly in the power of youth voice and in creating opportunities for them to share their stories safely and strategically to impact policies and practices that directly impact their lives. With this in mind, ten years ago we started our Youth Advocacy Programs, Juveniles for Justice and Youth Fostering Change. These programs bring youth voice and expertise to the forefront of our work, informing our overall strategies for changing the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Both programs create opportunities for youth with experience in these systems to lead advocacy efforts alongside adults. Youth in these programs work to impact policy through advocacy, media outreach, and public education. Youth develop leadership skills, political knowledge, communication and storytelling skills, and a sense of community.

Each year, youth advocates in Youth Fostering Change and Juveniles for Justice select an area of focus, develop a strategy with Youth Advocacy Program Mangers, and create and implement a campaign to address that issue. Throughout this process, youth are supported by staff to develop the campaign and complete research on their topic, including meeting with key stakeholders to inform campaign development to gather information from specific institutions. Youth in both programs, including alumni, are paid hourly along with annual pay increases. They also receive higher stipend rates for speaking events, conferences, and other opportunities when they are called on to share their experiences and recommendations for change. Payment for their work and transportation is a key element of our programming. We believe this is important in any program. For adults to truly respect youth for their work, and for youth to feel respected for their work, adults need to compensate them for their time. This is not only vital for the youth, but it shows that we respect their work and value their time.

An added component of our programs is our Youth Speakers Bureau. We added this program in 2011 to prioritize a youth perspective in policy and reform discussions on a national level. The Youth Speakers Bureau provides an opportunity for our Youth Advocates to present and share their experiences at various speaking events around the country. In 2017-2018, our Youth Advocates and alumni have spoken at over 59 meetings or events with policymakers, other stakeholders, and youth and reached an audience of over 2,900. The Youth Speakers Bureau has expanded the scope and power of Juvenile Law Center’s advocacy efforts, and most importantly, it continues to improve the lives of our youth speakers.

We understand that due to the youths’ involvement with these systems, they face specific challenges and trauma, including when sharing their stories or background with others. To help youth address their traumas of story sharing and gaining skills to strategically share their stories, we partner with a trained clinical social worker and University of Pennsylvania’s Communication Within the Curriculum (CWiC) program each semester to train youth on public speaking and safely and strategically sharing their stories. The CWiC program is comprised of undergraduate students who are trained in public speaking and serve as Speaking Advisors who teach workshops and provide coaching sessions for individual and group presentations. They partner with us each semester to provide trainings that guide youth on strategic sharing, including identifying triggers, techniques, and appropriate ways to manage when sharing. As a result, young people who have experienced excessive trauma thrive and excel when we give them control and say over what is happening in their lives and in the world.

Youth are also supported by staff to connect to other community resources in the Philadelphia area for things like transitional housing, clothing vouchers, vital documents, and educational support. This is important, as we recognize that when a youth’s basic needs are not met we cannot expect them to fully participate. We believe in a collaborative, holistic approach to working with youth that recognizes and respects youth agency.

For us to re-think systems and shape better communities that authentically support young people, adults need to ensure that youth have a seat at the table, alongside them. Youth need to feel and know that their input has a purpose and that they are provided key resources to safely process and share their stories and recommendations for change. Dr. Seuss’s quotes always ring true, that we have to continue to make space for youth to make “noise” in greater amounts. Youth tell us daily that they are present, are experts on the experiences of their lives, and are crucial to the decision-making process when adults seek to make decisions affecting them. Our youth deserve every opportunity to be at the table and not counted out. Every youth voice needs to be heard, and respected when and where it counts.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.