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Youth as social change agents

By Kathryn Sharpe

Smiling man walking down the street wearing headphones
Photo by Yingchou Han on

I recently heard a 4-H alum speak passionately about his current work as an activist and changemaker in his community, and he traced those roots back to his involvement in 4-H. It made me wonder, how can we best equip youth to become social change agents in our youth development programs?   

Youth development can learn a great deal about this from community organizing. Community organizing engages people to identify shared issues that impact them, and then work together to build power to effect change, frequently around issues of social justice. Organizers use skills such as deep listening, identifying mutual self-interest, and highlighting the strengths and assets in individuals and a community. Youth organizing programs bring these skills together with high quality youth development practices. Youth organizing programs maximize social-emotional benefits for youth because they embed the following principles:

  • They are fundamentally relational. They put young people and their lived experiences at the center of the work, including their culture and the challenges in their community.  
  • Youth organizing allows young people to make change by challenging power structures in a way they are not usually allowed to do without being labeled as “behavior problems”, particularly for BIPOC youth.
  • They are non-hierarchical. Youth are seen as leaders right now, not just in the future, and adults act as allies and supporters.

In the field of positive youth development, some educators have done important work bringing these concepts to bear in their work on integrating social justice into youth development. In a workshop at a recent conference, Nia Imani Fields challenged educators to treat injustices against youth with the same seriousness we would treat abuse or neglect as mandated reporters. It is not enough for us to just know about system level injustices; we need to actively work to change them and provide youth with the resources so they can speak up and advocate for themselves.

So how can youth workers integrate the lessons from youth organizing to cultivate social change agents in youth development programs?  

  • Center youth voice, even when it challenges our own beliefs or ideas.
  • Engage with the fullness of young peoples’ identities and lived experiences, even the “messy” or challenging parts—those are often the most fertile places for transformation (both individual and community).
  • Support young people to address their challenges not just as individuals, but within their whole ecosystem.
  • Take young people seriously as leaders, and truly share power.

Youth workers must be willing to let youth stretch to a point that makes us uncomfortable as adults.  This is not the same as abdicating our role to help them think through issues such as boundaries, safety, resource limits, or risk. But if we truly believe in the importance of young people developing their leadership, we recognize that they will see new possibilities that we as adults cannot see or believe possible. And in fact, our shared future relies on them doing so.

What strategies might you employ to cultivate youth as social change agents in your program? What principle from youth organizing could help you evolve your own practice as a youth worker?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

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  1. Thank you for starting the conversation, Kathryn. I've always been a proponent of going to where the people are and think it can be especially impactful when working with youth.

    Too often organizations fall into a mindset of waiting for people to come to them because it's how they've always done it. One major problem with this is most times, those organizations find themselves wondering where everyone is.

    If we, as youth workers, are able to be flexible with the times and places we meet, not only are we able to see youth in the places they are affecting change but we are also deepening our connection to the community.

    1. Thank you for the comment, and I definitely agree--one of the key elements in truly engaging youth (especially in an equitable way) is to meet them where they are at. That can be physically, like you highlight, and can also mean socially, emotionally, culturally. All of these can be ways to deepen our connection with community, and that we also communicate that we value the youth and the community.

  2. There are so many great points here, my thoughts are definitely going all over the place.

    One of the first ones is in one of your final bullets of taking youth seriously as leaders. The snippy part of me might challenge the need for a qualifier. We should take youth seriously, whether they are leaders yet or not. In doing so I think we allow the opportunity to mentor youth into leadership.

    That said, I mostly just think of how powerful a reminder it is, especially in light of your other points. How often do we dismiss youth concerns or don't take them seriously because they defy our notions of normal? How many times to we dismiss early school start times as mere complaints or even worse as lazy kids? And that is an issue that has research supporting our youth leaders complaints.

    So within that and to answer the question you posed. I think of how powerful wording and responses can be. When youth are complaining about early hours, can I build in time to ask them if they'd like to do something about it? Or if they've already thought of something to do? Building in time to further conversations instead of letting it rest and simply stating "that's how it is."

    So much more to consider and thanks for starting this conversations!

    1. I so appreciate you raising this great example--yes! This is a great example of how we as adults can shift from saying, " This is just the way things are" to instead taking youth seriously and believing that they have ideas and potential solutions. It also invites youth to engage their own critical thinking and creativity when we ask, "What would you envision as a better way if you could create it? What would you like to do to make that a reality?" And as you say, it means building in time for the conversation. I really appreciate your thoughts on this. Have you had this type of conversation with young people? What strategies did you find effective?

  3. Kathryn, this is so wonderfully written, and needed. Your commitment to ensuring that young people all over has a good future, has impacted so many in such amazing ways.

    I often think of where I started, in 4-H, with you. Those moments have had such an impact on the way that I think, how I carry myself, how I care about and hear others, upon many other feelings and actions. The journey has been worth it.

    I am so blessed to know you. 💕

    1. Quincy, thank you so much for your comments! Watching youth grow into amazing adults is why I, and so many youth workers, do this work. And now you are doing this work, as well! As you reflect back on all of those positive impacts on your own development, what elements do you want to bring forward into your own work with young people and youth programs? How are you working to build authentic youth voice and youth engagement into programs so young people can drive their own social change?

  4. Youth as change agents? That comes across as using youth for some adult's social agenda. Key word "using". Are those youth allowed to voice opinions and work as change agents in opposition to the politically correct narrative also, or only on one side of the equation? And are the parents being made aware of the way their children are being influenced/used? Or are parental rights an antiquated thing of the past? Oh, for more parents like this woman......

    1. You raise an important question--indeed, if we truly believe in helping youth empower themselves and their voices, it must mean them being able to speak on the things that matter to them. I led a project a couple of years ago where the youth ended up taking widely divergent positions on the issues in their projects. We focused on equipping all of them with research and critical thinking skills. One of the youth commented that their conversation engaging with people with such different views in the group was one of the best opportunities they have had to learn.

  5. Yes! Yes! Yes! I think the phrase "educate, not advocate" often scares educators away from educating ABOUT advocacy and organizing. I participated in a webinar recently about teaching advocacy skills. The presenters made some very important points:

    -Organizing and advocacy learning is GREAT experiential learning. It is a collaborative, inquiry-based, project-based, and community based experience.

    -Learners develop really critical leadership skills like visioning, networking, storytelling, and asking.

    They also mentioned one particular strategy when working with younger audiences: Host a "pitch competition" where small groups develop an idea to change the world, and then pitch their vision to the larger group. It can be a good starting point to help a group find direction.

    Thank you for bringing this forward, Kathryn!

    -Organizing and advocacy teaching

    1. Dylan, thanks so much for sharing these wonderful points! Indeed, we can focus on helping youth develop the skills that they can use for advocacy no matter what issue they might want to take on. And they are wonderful skills for them to be able to use when they are adults, as well. I love the idea of the "pitch competition" to get youth to really take on an issue and to need to develop a proposal, without getting too far into the weeds. Youth are so often trying on different issues and ideas to see what resonates for them, and that seems like a fantastic way to offer an opportunity to do so with a group. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. Thank you for this article! This makes me think about adultism, and the following bullet point/principle: "They are non-hierarchical. Youth are seen as leaders right now, not just in the future, and adults act as allies and supporters."
    This made me think particularly of emerging youth leaders and/or youth who may be at earlier stages of adolescent development. I am going to revisit this (development) because I've recently been in a few situations where I've felt that young leaders' behaviors or actions are being judged by other adults - and therefore aren't taken seriously. How can I address this and be a true ally to youth? ..thought-provoking article - thank you!

    1. Leigh, thank you so much for weighing in and bringing the perspective about adultism. This is something that is a challenge for many of us adults--how to take young people seriously when they are younger or in earlier stages of development. The thing that I see is that our goal is to help young people discover their voices, engage critically with the world around them, and learn how to advance their ideas and visions. This will look different in a younger child than in an older teen because the tools they are equipped with are different. But we can still take them seriously and encourage other adults to do so. This can be challenging if their behavior seems to be at odds with those goals. But just as a young person learning to throw a pot will need more guidance/support but they can make original and wonderful things, so can a young person who is asserting their ideas and opinions. If we treat them with true respect, then we will be able to offer that support, like suggestions about resources or feasibility, without demeaning or disempowering them in the process. What strategies have you found effective in navigating this issue?


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