Beyond Window Dressing: Authentic Youth Engagement for Lasting Change

By Laura Brady, Director, Austin Opportunity Youth Collaborative

This fall, in order to demonstrate the power of Youth Voice, the Austin Opportunity Youth Collaborative is launching a community-wide campaign to place 100 Opportunity Youth at “tables of influence” in both public and private sectors. This ambitious initiative, known as 100 Youth Voices, embraces our guiding philosophy of “no decision about youth without youth,” and reaffirms that young people are experts in their lived experience and that Youth Voice is key to systems change. Campaign objectives aim to influence transformation from within organizations, enable real-life leadership development and coaching, and assist emerging adults in building a network of professional allies.

Sounds amazing, right? It certainly can be, but it hinges on organizations and decision-makers working to understand and ensure authentic youth engagement that is empowering, effective, equitable, and non-exploitative.

Authentic youth engagement occurs when young people create positive social change through participating in structured youth-adult partnerships that ensure both groups contribute, teach, and learn from each other. It boils down to this: youth engagement loses authenticity when young people appear to be in decision-making positions, but in reality, have no or very little input or agency — resulting in feelings of manipulation, decoration, and tokenism.

Below are three key areas of reflection that will help ensure authentic youth engagement:

#1. Are you sure you’re ready for this?

Too often, the onus is placed solely on youth to prepare for adult engagement. Youth are told how to dress, how to act, and sometimes, unfortunately, what to say, only to be thrust into an unwelcoming environment of confusing industry jargon, stifling rules of engagement, patronizing stereotypes, and unmet logistical needs. Prior to inviting youth to participate, ask yourself how you can better prepare as adults to receive them. Read up on how to avoid adultism — the behavior and attitudes that flow out of negative stereotypes adults hold about young people –and address openly beforehand. Ask yourself if you’re truly willing to try a new approach — even if that means the uncomfortable forfeit of power and tradition. Ask yourself if your meetings are accessible to youth (e.g., are they held during school hours? are they located off public transit routes? are they advertised on social media platforms?) And finally, take a moment to consider whether your meetings are dull, soul-crushing ordeals attended by joyless and intimidating stuffed shirts. Remember, young people can smell boredom quicker than free pizza (And yes, you should probably provide food).

#2. Authentic youth engagement requires authentic support

Let’s start with the bare minimum: youth deserve to be paid for their expertise. Don’t expect economically vulnerable young adults to attend your meetings and enrich your work without providing compensation. If you are unable to offer stipends to youth participants, partner with a sponsoring organization (like us!) that is committed to doing so. Advocate for youth stipends in your grant applications and make the case to funders for paid work at a living wage (I recommend pre-paid debit cards). Go beyond financial compensation and consider any professional development training youth may need to thrive. Help connect Youth Voice participants to other much-needed support services, such as transportation, child-care assistance, case-management, work-readiness training, mental health counseling, and academic advising. Ensure that youth are formally recognized for their contributions through awards and certificates, and offer to serve as a professional reference or provide a letter of explanation for a criminal background. Meet for a cup of coffee to revise their résumé or help complete a scholarship or financial aid application together.

#3. The power of personal narrative and the need to stay in control

To improve the lives of America’s 5.5 million Opportunity Youth, we must build a movement with Youth Voice at the forefront. Through the power of personal narrative, we can begin to experience a culture shift that will eliminate stigma, identify and dismantle barriers, and create opportunities for reengagement. In order to avoid embarrassing spotlights, or worse, re-traumatization through unintended overshare, youth must be provided with clear expectations before being asked to speak, and should be trained in strategic sharing. Beyond controlling their message, young people must be given every opportunity to control their personal branding. Ask permission before taking and posting photographs. Never share personal contact information for youth advocates outside of your organization. Just because a personal story was shared once, never assume it’s okay to share at another occasion. Ask how the youth prefers to be introduced. Ask what topics are off limits before panel discussions. Make sure they feel valued for more than their ability to speak first-hand about the barriers they’ve experienced. Make sure they know you see them as more than their perceived deficits. Now make sure you both believe it.

I encourage organizations to have open discussions with their leadership about what is possible with youth engagement, stretch beyond their current practices, and share their ideas with local community collaborations. The many programs, organizations, and systems designed to serve young people in our community will be made richer and stronger through the integration of youth co-creation, perspective, and evaluation. For AOYC’s 100 Youth Voices initiative, the next year will be a journey we experience together, and I appreciate all who take part in the process.


Thank you for reading! Here’s another story on Youth Voice from the Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative: