When I was a teacher, my students’ voices were rarely taken into consideration at the school. The students had solid recommendations about what they needed and what would work best for them to succeed, yet decisions about their education were continuously made without their input. Students expressed frustration, disillusionment, and distrust with adult leadership and held doubts about the effectiveness of the traditional adult-led decision-making process, as they had little to no control over their own education and lives. Students wanted to be trusted, valued, and respected instead of underestimated or ignored.
Youth Engagement Research
Youth engagement in decision-making, especially about issues that directly affect young people’s lives, has benefits not only for the young person, but also for institutions, systems, and society at large.
- Researchers at the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital emphasize the need to engage young people in formulating solutions: “To adequately understand youth experiences, behaviors, cognitions, and emotions—and address associated challenges—there is an imperative to directly ask how they frame the problem and what we can do to solve it.”
- The UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent found that “[i]nvolving young people in research and evaluation improves the quality and relevance of both the research and ultimately the programs, policies, and organizations that serve young people. It also helps youth develop skills that they’ll need to thrive as contributing adults.”
When we listen and respond to our young people’s experiences and ideas for solutions, we all prosper.
In a study of Chicago Public Schools’ responsiveness to students’ concerns, youth engagement has resulted in several beneficial outcomes:
- “At the school level, attentiveness to students’ concerns may improve the way the school is organized and run.”
- “At the classroom level, teachers can be responsive to students by adapting their curricula and instruction in response to students’ feedback.”
- “At the student level, an environment that is responsive to student voice may lead young people to develop a greater sense of agency, of belonging to the school community, and of competence.”
“Specifically, a school’s responsiveness to student voice is associated with higher GPAs, higher attendance rates, and fewer chronically absent students.” Additionally, “policy and reform efforts focusing on student voice are particularly salient during a period in which there is increased recognition of the demand for educational institutions to respond to the needs and concerns of youth from marginalized backgrounds.”
Youth engagement must be authentic, intentional, and committed to the empowerment and success of the youth participants. Some seek out young people, not for their knowledge, but for their stories, often of trauma. We should ensure that young people are not tokenized to “check a box” or exploited for their personal stories to elicit emotional responses from audiences.
When asking young people to share their time and expertise, we need to value their contributions, not only by appropriately responding to the substance of what the young people share, but also by compensating the young people as we would other experts. Moreover, adults should provide sufficient support to young people by providing resources, training, and professional development, while being flexible, non-judgmental, and committed for the long-haul.
AYPF’s Youth Engagement Strategy
With the belief that those closest to the problem have a unique understanding of solutions, AYPF is partnering with young people to provide insights from their lived expertise to help shape policies and programs that directly impact their lives. For lawmakers and school officials to create policies that reflect the strengths and realities of our young people and achieve positive outcomes—especially including the goals they have for themselves and their communities—their voice must be at the center of the policymaking process. As AYPF works directly with our Youth Policy Consultants, we strive to ensure that youth involvement in the policymaking process is an empowering experience for young people, especially those who have been marginalized by systemic inequities.
AYPF is dedicated to providing meaningful opportunities for young people to engage with federal policymakers, not to expose their personal trauma, but to share their insights to make policies more responsive and equitable. Young people have invaluable observations and innovative solutions with a deep understanding based on their own lived experiences. By preparing adults and building their capacity for purposeful collaboration, we will ensure that marginalized youth are heard and valued for their expertise, resulting in reforms that better meet the young people’s needs and maximize their assets so they can achieve their dreams.
AYPF’s upcoming Youth Summit in August 2022 will be a great event for young people to get involved and explore how we can work together. The Youth Summit virtual gatherings will take place August 3, 17, and 31, 7:30-9 pm ET.
We will amplify youth voices and celebrate the power of young people to create change. Thought-leaders, youth advocates, and policymakers are also invited to listen, learn, and join us in amplifying youth voices. Each session—exploring topics such as the school-to-prison pipeline and youth employment policies—will be engaging, interactive, and fun! Save the dates–more information coming soon!