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Authentic Youth Engagement

By Raquel Arismendez

Serving as the Youth Engagement Coordinator for almost two VISTA years now, I have a few thoughts about youth engagement.

“Youth engagement” and “youth voice” are very en vogue in the nonprofit world right now – lots of organizations in some capacity want to get more feedback from the young people they serve.

A decent chunk of my success in this VISTA position was due to the fact that I’m still young myself.  I, too, fit the definition of Opportunity Youth back when I was in high school. When conducting focus groups and facilitating meetings, I could almost always connect with the young people present and through that, build trust. Genuine feedback was given because of the trusting relationships I built with young people.

I turned 27 this past March.  I am getting closer to 30 and further from 20.  Late 20’s is the tipping point between being classified as a “young person” and classified as an adult.  I have a good idea of where my professional journey is headed as my second service year concludes. C3 TwinCities was (and still is) an excellent growth opportunity. It helped launch a career I’ve aspired to since I was 16 years old, even if back then I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate that goal.

I got into the field of youth engagement because I wanted to become the supportive adult that I lacked in my youth: someone who could help represent my needs to others, someone who could help refine and triangulate my ambition so it didn’t fade into hopeless apathy in the face of a complex–and often unjust–world.  I wanted someone who didn’t belittle experiences with phrases like, “you’ll understand when you’re older.”

While the nuance of this stance has become more refined over the past ten years, the core philosophy of it hasn’t changed.  Young people deserve autonomy in their own lives. Being a decade older hasn’t changed that.

Despite finding success in my service by being able to relate to the youth that we serve, being an unaccompanied homeless youth is a lot different in 2018 than it was in 2008.  Smartphones and social media alone drastically change the landscape. This is why passing the VISTA torch to someone younger is important: they can contextualize engagement with a more up-to-date lens.

Youth engagement isn’t just about getting young people involved, making events for them, or giving them two non-voting seats on your 20-person governance committee.  It’s about shifting a balance of power and actually listening to what young people have to say, even when you don’t like what you’re hearing.

What does it mean to practice authentic youth engagement, then?

  • Honor someone’s lived experience, even if it’s in stark contrast to your own.  Even if it wasn’t like that when you were 17, even if you can point out all the mistakes that young person made that led up to that experience, that still doesn’t negate they life they lived.  You don’t know (and can’t know) the whole story of what brought them to that point in their lives, which brings me to my next point:
  • You can’t tell how many miles were put on a car just by looking at the year it was made.  You can make an educated guess, sure, but there are some cars that are only three years old with almost two hundred thousand miles on them, and there are some cars made in 1965 that only left the garage for a Sunday drive.  I think you know where I’m going with this metaphor.
  • Compensate people for their time and energy.  Like this article points out so well: pizza is cute, but it’s not cash.  You’re getting paid (in one way or another) to be at that meeting, why shouldn’t the young attendees get paid, too?
  • Be honest, stay present, and follow through. Young people in this line of work will almost always be wary: they’ve been burned before, even by adults with good intentions.  If you’re bringing your “professional” self to the table and not your authentic self, they’ll take notice very quickly. If you promise to look into something or check in with them at a later date, they’ll remember if you followed through or not.  Even if you got busy and didn’t have time to get to the task, you still owe them an explanation.
  • Don’t open an old wound and then leave them to close it back up on their own.  Many people in the public and nonprofit sector will ask for details about what led a young person to this particular point in their life.  Oftentimes these details can be painful to recall, especially to a conference table filled with unfamiliar faces. This emotional labor may help justify program funding to donors, but as you’re wrapping up your meeting, that young person is on the bus ride home, face-to-face with their trauma all over again.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there lots of people who have written more about this, but these are some things to keep in mind the next time someone at your organization wants to jump on the “youth voice” bandwagon.

Phillips Family Foundation

Author Phillips Family Foundation

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