Source: Points of Light Foundation, 2001
Introduction to youth voice
Youth voice refers to the ideas, opinions, involvement and initiatives of people considered to be young. Traditionally "young people" are defined as between the ages of 5-25. In the context of service-learning, it is the input of young people in developing and implementing policies, plans and projects to guide service-learning efforts. Youth voice does not mean youth have ultimate power, it is about respecting the different perspectives and ideas of young people and adults and working together.
The importance of youth voice
Youth voice benefits young people, adults and organizations. It provides young people with increased self-esteem and sense of personal control, greater development of life skills including leadership, public-speaking, dependability, and job responsibility, less involvement in risky behaviors like drug use and juvenile delinquency and better academic achievement. It changes how adults view young people (they are more likely to perceive them as critical to organizational improvement), enhances their commitment to the organization, and increases their effectiveness and competency working with youth. For organizations it brings new ideas and energy, helps clarify their mission and increases their connectedness and responsiveness to youth.
Research supporting youth voice
Research from both the service-learning and youth development fields supports the value of youth voice. Researchers have found that high-quality service-learning programs are rich with benefits for schools, communities and most of all students. One of the hallmarks of these successful programs is that they honor youth voice. After reviewing numerous studies on service-learning, researcher Shelley Billig observed that outcomes related to service-learning are maximized when students are given greater degrees of responsibility for planning, decision-making, problem solving and assessing their learning. In other words, youth voice is not only an essential component of high-quality service-learning programs but also helps to magnify the positive results of service-learning (Billig, 2000).
Research conducted in the youth development field also supports the value of youth voice for adults, organizations, and young people. A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development, a Division of National 4-H Council, states that there are a number of effects that young people can have on adults and organizations by being included in decision-making roles (Zeldin, Kusgen McDaniel, Topitzes, Calvert, 2000). Scales and Leffert (1997) compiled the effects of participation in youth organizations on young people.
Billig, S.H., Research on K-12 School-Based Service-Learning: The
Evidence Builds, Phi Delta Kappan, May 2000, 81, 9, pp. 658-664.
Scales, P., and N. Leffert, Developmental Assets: A Synthesis of the Scientific Research on Adolescent Development, Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute, 1997.
Zeldin, Shepherd, and Matt Calvert, Annette Kusgen McDaniel and Dimitri Topitzes, Youth in Decision- Making: A Study on the Impacts of Youth and Adults on Organizations, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, 2000.
Models for engaging youth voice
There are many different models of youth voice. All models of youth voice incorporate some form of youth/adult partnership, this means adults and young people are working together, sharing power, and learning from each other. No one model is the best model, but different models may work better in certain situations. Below you will find a few commonly used models.
Youth as Trainers is a model that stems from the belief that youth who are well trained and supported can design and deliver training about service-learning, or orientation for service-learning projects.
Youth as Planners is a model that engages young people in planning and implementing service projects. Youth might help identify community needs, determine objectives, recruit volunteers, develop action plans and timelines, and evaluate the project.
Youth as Evaluators allows young people to assess program effectiveness by being involved in the evaluation process. They can develop and implement surveys, conduct interviews and document their findings.
Youth Summits bring young people together for discussion and action around issues and concerns important to them. They provide youth an opportunity to voice their concerns and develop solutions.
Youth Action/Advisory Councils (YAC) is a group of young people working with an existing organization to keep youth involved in the mission of the organization. YACs help make decisions, advise, and/or address specific issues.
Youth As Funders refers to young people's involvement in philanthropy. This could mean raising money, developing requests for proposals (rfps), reviewing proposals, and determining who gets the money.
Youth on Board refers to young people serving on organizational governing structures, especially boards, as a full voting member with all the same place in organizational decision making as other board members.
How to incorporate youth voice into your program
You can't incorporate youth voice without incorporating youth. Start by getting young people involved in small ways with the activities and tasks related to your service-learning project or program. If you have never engaged youth voice in any way it would be difficult to go from no youth involvement to having youth serve on your board. It may be better to start with engaging youth participants in your programs in things like developing a needs assessment or as trainers at an orientation for new participants.
You also need to make sure that your organization is ready for youth voice. Talk to staff at your organization about their perceptions and experiences with young people. If staff at your organization is especially reluctant to partner with youth, you might want to engage youth in the organization apart from staff and find a way to share their successes later. As staff see the benefit of engaging youth, start looking for opportunities for them to work together.
Preparing youth to take on decision-making and leadership roles
The best way to prepare youth to take leadership is to provide them with the skills, tools and information they will need to be successful in the role you have identified. If you are engaging young people as evaluators, this may mean spending time talking about what evaluation is, what a survey is, and how to develop one and analyze its data, before actually asking youth to develop a survey for your program. Don't isolate young leaders; let them know they have support and guidance. Remember to communicate clearly with youth, especially the expectations, roles, and responsibilities you and your organization have of them.
Tips for working with youth
Here are a few key tips to keep in mind when working with youth:
- Avoid tokenism; asking one or two youth to join a board may make youth intimidated or inadequate to represent all of their peers
- Listen to youth
- Be honest with young people (don't say you can do something you can't)
- Maintain a clear system of accountability
- Give youth meaningful opportunities
- Provide young people with information, support, and training they need
- Schedule meetings at times when youth can participate
- Don't invite youth involvement and then ignore the ideas they give you
Good resources on youth voice
There are a number of useful resources on youth voice which can help you engage young people in leadership and decision-making in your program.
14 Points: Successfully Involving Youth in Decision Making, Youth On Board, 2001.
A comprehensive guide to youth involvement and ownership in their community. The publication is available from Youth on Board.
Guidelines and Resources for Establishing a Youth Advisory Committee, Council Of Michigan Foundations, 2000.
This is a free step-by-step guide to creating Youth Advisory Committees.
Integrating Youth Voice in Service-Learning, Learning Indeed Issue Paper, Education Commission of the States.
You may order this guide by clicking on the above link, or by contacting:
Education Commission of the States
707 17th Street, Suite 2700
Denver, CO 80202-3427
Youth Involvement: Developing Leaders and Strengthening Communities, Swinehart, Bruce, Partners for Youth Leadership, 1990.
Youth Voice: A Guide for Engaging Young People in Leadership and Decision-making in Service-Learning Programs, Justinianno, Jonna, and Cynthia Scherer, Lori Johnson, Brad Lewis, Rachel Swanson and Andrea Felix, Points of Light Foundation, 2001.
This guide provides information on a variety of models and includes an extensive resource section.
Youth Voice Begins With You!, Kurkoski, Jennifer, and Karla Markendorf and Norma Straw, Vancouver, WA: Washington Youth Voice Project, Project Service Leadership, 1997.
You may contact Project Service Leadership at 360-576-5070.
© 2001 Learn and Serve America's National Service-Learning Clearinghouse.
Photocopying for nonprofit educational purposes is permitted.