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Youth voice -- how much and when?

By Betsy Olson and Mark Haugen

Each fall, leaders of youth organizations reflect on their successes, celebrate with award ceremonies and begin planning for next year. Injecting youth voice into your annual program planning and goal-setting process is critical as it increases the relevance of those goals or plans. Providing space and time for youth voice also works to engage young people. Once engaged, they are more successful at accomplishing goals and following through on plans.

The process is much more than a simple activity! Authenticity is critical -- don’t ask for youth voice if you don’t want to use it. When organizations use youth voice as tokenism it alienates the youth they aim to serve. No one likes to be asked their opinion only for it to be ignored.

Be sure that your organization or group is ready for the impact of youth voice. Start by identifying the level of involvement your group is prepared for and ask young people for the input that your organization will act upon.

One method of creating space for youth voice is to use planning activities that fit the level of youth involvement appropriate for your group. You might start with a more adult-centered model and eventually move to youth initiated planning. Choose the level of adult leadership and youth voice that suits your organization (the levels follow those developed by Roger Hart):

Adult design, youth serve as consultants
  • Goal:  Gathering feedback from members and ensuring they know how their feedback is being used.
  • Tip:  Try gathering feedback in an interactive way. One resource where you can find activities that can help youth be a part of your planning process is the Building Your Programs 20 Minutes at Time booklet.

Adult-initiated decisions, youth share in decision making
  • Goal:  Adult leaders initiate and guide the planning process at this level, and youth involvement goes beyond just providing feedback.
  • Tip:  A shared decision making model involves youth and adults working in partnership to set the priorities, sort through potential options and make decisions. Creation of a small goal setting committee that will create and present options for group vote is a great method!

Youth-initiated decisions, youth start and direct planning and programming
  • Goal:  Adults support young people through the planning process to provide them with tools that can assist them in working through a program plan.
  • Tip:  Adult volunteers can facilitate a SOAR or SWOT evaluation of the program with youth. After priorities are identified, a tool used by Minnesota 4-H, the 4-H goal setting worksheet, can be used to identify an action plan. 

Youth share decisions, start and direct planning and programming and share how adult feedback is used
  • Goal: Youth are in the decision makers and adults play the role of providing feedback and trusting youth to utilize that feedback appropriately.
  • Tip:  Trust youth to develop the action plan after a Youth Program Quality Assessment.
Youth voice can be incorporated into an annual planning process at each level of youth involvement. Challenging yourself and your group to infuse youth input in the goals you set for the year will help build strong youth leaders, informed adults and effective organizations.

Have you used any of these strategies? What successes or obstacles have you had?

-- Betsy Olson and Mark HaugenExtension educators

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  1. Great article about the importance of youth voice in youth development program analysis! I love the idea of doing a SWOT analysis. I just did this with my ambassador group about a week and a half ago and have their big post its on my office wall right now. I find this method to be a great, non-threatening, and somewhat anonymous way to share in future direction of a program. The biggest obstacle that I have found with this method is that it can some times take a little time for peoples' thoughts to start flowing, but once they do, they often come pouring out. I have also witnessed some adults struggle with the idea of turning decision making and strategic planning over to youth. This is probably because they are nervous about what the youth may come up with or that they feel their role with the program is lessened due to giving over some of the control. That's why I believe it is so important for adults to help with facilitation of this process.

  2. Getting adults involved in facilitating the process is a great way for adults to help support youth voice. And you are right on, Darcy, that helping adults feel comfortable and supportive of the level of youth voice the organization is incorporating into the planning process is a vital and often difficult part of incorporating youth voice.
    Beyond getting adults involved in facilitation, another way to encourage them to get on board is to highlight the benefits. Over time the value to youth, value to the organization itself and the amount of growth in the leadership capacity of the group helps to bring adults along. In the meantime, I have found it is useful to address adult concerns head on. Encouraging adults to talk about their concerns and responding to those concerns by helping adults understand the benefits and positive youth outcomes is an important way to encourage them to support the incorporation of youth voice into group decisions.
    What other strategies have you used to combat adult reluctance?


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