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Youth engagement through an equity lens

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Young girl smiling with hands over her face
We often think of “engaged youth” as those who are learning and having fun. But meaningful program engagement is more than that. We can use an equity lens to discover how. When youth are truly engaged, they will see their unique cultural identity and experiences authentically reflected in the program, and then learning and having fun will happen naturally. 

Here are three ways you can engage youth through an equity lens.

Gather youth input

Getting youth input can be tricky because they may not know exactly what they want, may not know how to explain what they want, may not understand why they feel the way they do, or some combination of all these things. Youth, after all, are often more used to being told what to do rather than being asked what they’d like. Youth in marginalized groups often feel further silenced. Thinking about their thoughts and feelings, as well as articulating an idea, is a skill we are all continually learning. Gathering and using youth input not only supports positive youth development and teaches self-expression and self-advocacy by showing youth that their thoughts, feelings, and ideas matter, but it also provides great ideas on how to engage youth in meaningful ways that give credence to their cultural values. 

For example, rather than just getting pizza for a family gathering, a youth worker asked youth for their input. The group decided to invite family members to cook with the youth before enjoying the meal together. This allowed parents the opportunity to share their family recipes, and it valued the groups’ cultural traditions of preparing meals together. It also allowed each family to contribute to the cost of the meal, which gave them a better sense of ownership than the original plan would have provided.

Ensure meaningful roles

Another way to foster engagement is by ensuring youth have roles that are meaningful and relevant to their particular cultural context or experience. Spending time getting to know youth strengths and individual experiences rather than making assumptions about them, we can be more effective in ensuring the relevancy of youth roles. For instance, in 4-H, a chartered club is required to have some kind of youth leadership structure, but youth can choose what this leadership looks like. Allowing youth to determine the structure they want to use will ensure that it’s culturally appropriate and will also better engage them in roles they feel are meaningful.  

Engage youth with community issues

A third approach to engagement through an equity lens is helping youth engage with community issues that affect them. This could be through a simple discussion about those issues, or it could take the form of action to impact the issue. Engagement with community is an important way that youth can develop self-efficacy. Youth with self-efficacy know that they matter and believe in their ability to affect change. Having this sense of agency is an important element of youth identity formation. Youth programs that lack this type of community engagement may miss an important opportunity for youth to experience the kind of meaningful engagement that they recognize as having a direct impact on themselves and their world.

How are you engaging youth in a way that gives credence to their cultural values and experiences?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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