"Youth Involvement" in Our Field

By Susan J. Ellis

The IAVE World Volunteer Conference was held in Amsterdam on January 14-18, gathering 1500 participants from over 90 countries. One of the missions of this event was to involve young participants and develop momentum for attention to international youth volunteering. One way this was done was to invite young delegates from around the world to a pre-conference forum and then to report on their deliberations to the "adult" conferees (the word the young people chose to use).

The subject of young people engaging in community service is certainly far from new. Neither are youth "forums" or "days of service." But some issues surfaced in Amsterdam that made me stop and think-so a new "Hot Topic" was born!

What Do We Mean by "Youth"?

In the process of discussing "youth," conferees found that no one definition is acceptable to all. In many European countries, "youth" refers to ages 18 to 24. For the United Nations and in many African countries, "youth" includes people up to age 30-which strikes those of us from North America as strange. We, in fact, tend to include teenagers in our term "youth," which many countries do not. I submit that, until we can be clear about the age group under discussion, we cannot take effective action.

For those of us who want to include teenagers (and even children) in the "youth" category, what exactly do we expect from teenagers who have few legal rights but lots of energy and skills to share? Energize has advocated children as volunteers since our original book on the subject in 1983 - Children as Volunteers. Yet, as already discussed in this section in Mixed Messages: What Do We Really Think about Young Volunteers?, effective programs are not as easy to find as might be supposed.

Another wrinkle in the definition question is whether, when discussing "youth as volunteers," we mean any or all of the following:

  • students in formal service-learning programs
  • students engaging in service on their own
  • young people not yet fully employed and therefore prospects for full-time (even out of country) service
  • young adults who are in the workforce but want to be active citizens
  • group civic action that includes young people because they are family members and residents of the community involved
  • "pre-family" adults, in that the tendency is to see anyone married with children (even if still a teenager) as no longer in the category of "youth"-and some cultures accept motherhood at a very early age

Again, lumping all these categories together can muddy the waters badly.

What Role Should Youth Play in Planning and Leadership?

  • In developed countries, we proclaim the wish to include youthful voices in planning as well as doing volunteer work. But this theme takes on far greater significance when one considers some sobering demographic facts in other parts of the world. For example, due to deaths from AIDS, war, and other disasters, the number of youth in some African countries tallies over 60% of the population. In such circumstances, young people have no choice but to take a leadership role in addressing their nations' needs.
  • Much of the discussion about young volunteers includes the word "leadership." Understandably, young people want to be seen as more than "helpers" and desire a role in planning and coordinating activities. And many youth are competent to take on leadership roles. But the debate sometimes overlooks one important fact: youth may also mean lack of experience. And there are times when experience does count. We do not do young people a favor by advocating their move to the front of the line before they learn the skills necessary to lead. In fact, learning the best practices of "followership" might be one of the significant outcomes of volunteering.
  • Do some societies actively block young adults from contributing? How? It was unclear as to whether the obstacles are legal ones, such as age of consent, or traditions such as honoring age and status over new ideas. This is especially important if we think of anyone under age 30 as a "youth." How does this differ from being a "young adult"…and should it?

Should There Be Age Segregation?

More than anything else, I would like to learn readers' response to what troubles me most: age segregation. Offering a "youth forum" as a "pre-conference" activity is becoming popular, just as youth service recognition days are commonly "lifted" out of general volunteer celebrations. For that matter, we often do the same thing with older volunteers, too.

While there are good reasons to allow age categories to meet together sometimes in separate sessions, when and how do we then integrate them into the talent pool of all "people"? Put another way, if a 20-something affects change, is this attributable to "youth" or "talent"? Does it matter? Creating artificial categories may be counterproductive. Instead of holding separate sessions for young adults, why not truly integrate them into the main events-as workshop leaders, keynote speakers, and vocal participants?

Do any of these issues strike a chord with you? What are your thoughts on youth involvement in our field?

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint