Making the Case for Youth Participation

By Loring Leifer and Michael McLarney
From Younger Voices, Stronger Choices: Promise Project's Guide to Forming Youth/Adult Partnerships, YMCA of Greater Kansas City, 1997, pp. 4-5

Just as successful businesses make decisions based on what their customers want, successful organizations need to do the same. Nike doesn't design tennis shoes without talking to the athletes who wear them. Organizations too need to be aligned with their target markets. Only teens can tell you what is going on in their lives, what are the pressures they face. "If the problem is gang violence, you go to the teenagers-even to the detention centers-and bring those youths to the table. Anything else is seeds for failure," says William Lofquist, a consultant on youth development issues.

"If we don't give young people real decision-making authority, we are going to lose them," warns Lofquist. In many cases, young people will listen more closely to their peers than they will to their parents or other adult figures. Most young people have an adult filter, a listening device that turns itself off when an adult starts to lecture. If you have a message that you want to communicate to young people, you'll have much better luck getting through if the messenger is another young person.

Involving young people in decisions is a way of showing respect, of saying their opinions and ideas count. To accomplish this, both youths and adults will need adequate preparation and training. just appointing young people to an all-adult board and giving them full rights and responsibilities won't work unless they have adequate education in governance and trusteeship. There has to be a commitment to creating a youth-friendly environment and giving all members the tools they need.

Often, both young people and adults have to learn to let go of stereotypes they each hold about the other, insists Jan Obergoenner, youth development specialist for the Mid-Continent Council of Girl Scouts.

Young people must give up the notion that adults are domineering task masters who want to keep all command, and, on the other end of the spectrum, adults must acknowledge that young people have something of value to contribute. A trust for each other is needed, according to Obergoenner.

What does it mean to involve youth in your organization?

FOR YOUNG PEOPLE, this means:

  • Making a commitment to take on new roles and responsibilities.
  • Learning to cooperate with different kinds of people.
  • Believing that you can make a difference in your community, then working toward that goal.
  • Recognizing how much power and influence you can have.

FOR ADULTS, this means:

  • Being open to the energy and insights of young people.
  • Learning to work witb youth, not for them.
  • Listening to youth rather than telling them.
  • Letting go of your role as a parent or teacher to share power and responsibilities.
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