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Creating space for youth as social innovation changemakers

By Rebecca Meyer

Drawing of light bulb with molding clay in the middle

One year ago, in a blog post on program innovation, I suggested a framework for conditions that help us take innovative leaps in our youth programming. Little did I know then that three months later, a global pandemic would take hold and push me to think about how we can help youth take innovative leaps of their own.

Joan T.A. Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota, has recently discussed the idea of MNtersections between University and community partners to fuel innovations that advance our collective capabilities to tackle grand challenges related to health, sustainability, and food systems. These grand challenges cannot be solved by any individual, single group of people, or one strategy. It is impossible to develop a precise plan or follow a series of steps to tackle them. Instead, they require groups of different kinds of people come together to network, learn, and work together through an unpredictable and messy process called social innovation. It requires them to draw on their collective strengths and different perspectives to better understand the root causes of problems, identify and experiment with solutions. This has me considering how we can take innovative leaps in our programs and with community partners to engage more youth in these efforts. I am asking the question, “Where and how could youth MNtersect with others to make a critical impact?” and “How can I help to create these MNtersections?”

There are grand challenges that more clearly focus on youth, but all of the grand challenges ultimately impact and involve youth. And youth have certainly demonstrated the ability to be changemakers in tackling grand challenges. Plenty of examples exist, including Greta Thunberg (who I wrote about in 2019), and Gitanjali Rao who herself is a 4-H’er in Colorado.

As youth development professionals, we have a responsibility to identify spaces where we can engage more youth meaningfully and authentically in social innovation efforts to tackle these complex issues. Youth are often more open conduits to innovation and practice and can be influencers with family and their communities. We can harness this energy by ensuring youth have not only an understanding of these issues, but also roles in planning groups, boards, committees, and other service groups to share their ideas and help their fellow community members identify solutions and go about tackling them.

How do you think we can work with community partners to invite youth to the table to work on social innovations? What strategies do you imagine employing?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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  1. Becky, thank you for asking these questions! Two ideas come to mind when I think of how to bring youth to the spaces where social innovation happens. The first is that we should not shy away from equipping youth with advocacy skills. Youth development professionals often shy away from advocacy because we "educate, not advocate." I am not suggesting that we tell youth what to think, but rather equip them with the tools to advance their own ideas.

    I recently participated in a "Teaching Advocacy" webinar hosted by Antioch University New England. The presenter defined advocacy as the "Pursuit of influencing outcomes that directly affect people's lives." The presenter went on to describe the process of learning how to advocate as "experiential, collaborative, inquiry-based, project-based, and community-based learning" Isn't that exactly the kind of experience we hope to provide youth in our programs?

    My other thought is that we can communicate youth development programs as being community development programs. We should absolutely center youth in all aspects of our work. But, if we are to ask community partners to have youth participate in decision-making, than we need those partners to understand that we are doing so not just for the benefit of young people, but the benefit of the entire community.

    My two cents. Thanks for asking the complex questions!

    1. Thank you for your comments. I absolutely agree that it is important that we equip young people with the tools to advance their own learning and ideas, as well as creating spaces for mutually learning together regardless of age. Out of curiosity, what strategies or tools have you found successful at equipping youth to advance their ideas?

      How are others working with community partners to invite youth to the table to work on social innovations?


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