Helping, Contributing, Learning: Youth Engagement as a Path to Well-being

Photograph of two smiling young people using a laptop computer.

The Family and Youth Services Bureau is dedicated to improving the social and emotional well-being of at-risk young people, and few things are as important to that effort as youth engagement. When young people take an active role in their service programs, peer groups and communities, they learn that they have something to contribute as individuals. And when adults offer safe, trauma-informed opportunities for young people to engage with the world, they can help improve their sense of self-worth. 

In this issue of The Exchange we look at youth engagement strategies that challenge young people to take charge of their wellbeing. First we talk to a youth worker who wants to make sure that youth self-advocacy is always trauma-informed. Next we speak to two university professors who have employed transition-age young people as research assistants. And last, we hear from a Michigan drop-in center that asks their participants to shape every facet of programming, from the courses on offer to hiring new staff. 

But we’d love to learn more. What kinds of special youth engagement strategies does your program use? Tell us your experiences on Twitter and Facebook.

Taking Control of their Stories: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Youth Advocacy

​In 2011, the Detroit public school board approved an anti-bullying policy written by a group of homeless youth identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning. The decision was a cause for celebration at Ruth Ellis Center, a local residential program and drop-in center that supported the youth as they turned their personal experiences with bullying into public reform.Photograph of two young men shaking hands.

Their transformation was facilitated by Out and Up Front, a yearlong program launched by Ruth Ellis to ensure that youth advocacy is done in a therapeutic, trauma-informed way.

“A lot of organizations that work with youth experiencing homelessness know that sharing a personal story is a really valuable way to help people see why these issues need to be addressed,” says Jessie Fullenkamp, Ruth Ellis Center’s director of outreach services. “But not everyone realizes that process can be exploitative and traumatic.”

Serving as a Coach and Confidante

Celeste Bodner, executive director of a national network of foster youth known as FosterClub, says agencies should view themselves as a professional basketball team. Staff members are responsible for developing an advocacy strategy and finding speaking opportunities such as legislative visits and professional panels, she says, in addition to coaching youth “players” on their presentations.

Just as coaches pay attention to the well-being of their athletes, Bodner says youth workers should also seek to reduce the trauma that can occur when youth share difficult memories. FosterClub runs an intensive training program in which youth learn to frame their stories and practice presenting them in small groups and one-on-one.

According to former youth participant Daniel Knapp, young people can move as slowly through the preparation process as they want, allowing them to get to know staff members. These relationships help mentors see more easily when a youth is upset and encourage youth to be honest when they don’t want to share something publicly.

“You earned that story,” says Knapp, who now sits on the FosterClub board of directors. “It’s not just something you give away freely.”

Learning to Say (and Hear) ‘No’

Over at the Ruth Ellis Center, staff members proactively address the power dynamics that can occur when young people collaborate with adults. For example, youth know they can say no to a speaking engagement at any time and can decline on-the-spot questions they feel are too invasive. Fullenkamp says the agency follows up with youth after each event to hear their feedback.

Ruth Ellis also teaches young people about the many things that can change in the policy process, she says, showing youth how to engage their communities in an initiative even if policymakers don’t act on their requests. Both she and Bodner agree that youth can benefit from the advocacy process regardless of the final outcome.

“Young people in care are made to tell their story over and over again, and it’s not in their control,” Bodner says. “This is the first time they get control over it for a lot of young people, and it’s the first time they see it used for a good purpose.”

Tips for Engaging Youth in Advocacy

Here are some additional tips for programs looking to engage youth in advocacy.

  • Follow the Field—Stay up-to-date on current discussions in the field, Bodner says, and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask if young people can participate if they don’t already have a seat at the table.
  • Know Your Limits—Learn what your agency is legally allowed to do, Fullenkamp says. Even if your nonprofit cannot directly lobby, for example, you may still be able to educate youth and develop relationships with local advocacy groups looking to partner with young people.
  • Don’t Talk Down to Youth—Foster Club and the Ruth Ellis Center teach youth the about policy issues they find interesting, including common arguments for and against a policy change and evidence-based approaches to the problem. 
  • Acknowledge Multiple Perspectives—Foster Club and the Ruth Ellis Center teach youth the about common arguments for and against a policy change so they can understand each side of the debate.


Offering a New Perspective, Learning New Skills: Youth Engagement in Research

David Moore didn’t have any professional academic or scientific experience, but when the then-23 year-old heard about a job opportunity to assist with a research project on youth homelessness, he thought he could contribute. “I’d never done that kind of work before,” Moore says, “but I had a bit of experience with the subject of the work. I could relate.” 

That’s exactly what Don Schweitzer, a professor at Pacific University in Oregon, was counting on. Schweitzer had just completed a series of focus groups with formerly homeless young people on the topic of youth engagement—specifically their reasons for seeking help in a runaway and homeless youth program.–But when it came time to analyze the interviews, Schweitzer stopped to think about his approach. 

Photograph of diverse young people working together around a computer.“It didn’t make sense to draw conclusions based on where I’m at and where I am” in my life, he says. “I wondered, ‘Can we get young adults with similar experiences to analyze the data?’” Schweitzer found five youth analysts, including Moore, by posting a job opportunity at local basic center and transitional living programs. Moore says that the introduction to data and teamwork was inspiring. “It made me want to try harder to get into college,” he says. 

“Conceptually, I always understood the value of youth participation” says Schweitzer, who worked for years as a social worker before focusing on academia. “But I had never done anything like it at this level. Now I know it’s the right way to do this work. We’ve got to find meaningful participation for young people” in order to provide the best services possible.

Schweitzer says his project was helped immeasurably when his young collaborators recognized slang and other subtleties in the testimonies they analyzed. He’s one of many academics who now look out for ways to include at-risk or transition-age youth, providing them with a new set of skills and valuable professional experience as he improves his own research. 

Pauline Jivanjee is another. An associate professor of social work at Portland State University, Jivanjee posted signs around campus asking for people between 18 and 24 years old who were interested in leading focus groups of transition-age youth with mental health problems. She felt that her young interviewees would be more forthcoming if someone with a similar background led their conversations, and picked a young woman who had overcome mental health issues of her own.  

Like Schweitzer, she didn’t require that her youth partners be trained in research methods or even interested in a career in the field. “We were looking for good writers with good empathy and people skills,” Jivanjee says. “They needed enough assertiveness to manage a group discussion. As long as people have good thinking skills, curiosity and openness to learning, we can teach them the technical skills.” 

Both Jivanjee and Schweitzer trained their assistants in basic academic practices like research ethics, focus group facilitation, bias control and data collection. Training took place on the job, in the first few weekly meetings for their respective projects.

Beyond their payment (both Jivanjee and Schweiter paid their assistants a standard researcher wage), the young people in these projects gained a variety of professional skills. “She described herself as a shy person and learned the skill of speaking in public in front of a national conference audience,” says Jivanjee of her assistant, who co-presented their research at four conferences. “She learned qualitative analysis software, and proved to be very savvy with technology.”

Schweitzer agrees. “One of my participants said he’d never read this much in his life,” he says. His five assistants now “have an understanding of how to read and analyze at a deeper level, which has profound consequences for any young person.” 

Gauging a research opportunity for your youth

Young people in your program who are outgoing and intellectually curious could benefit from an intensive research experience. Pauline Jivanjee and Don Schweitzer say to screen opportunities according to three main criteria:

Relevance: Youth may be more compelled to help with a long project if they know they’ll be helping peers with similar backgrounds. “They saw the value of this professional experience,” says Schweitzer of his youth analysts, “but they also recognized and responded to the fact that the work was aimed at improving outcomes.”

Safety: A discussion group about past experiences may potentially open old wounds for youth. Jivanjee, like Schweitzer, is a trained social worker, which she says helped allay any such fears. “If someone became distressed we would know what to do. We can connect them with crisis lines and support services.” Youth workers can also avoid any potential pitfalls by matching their youth with age-appropriate projects that foster empowerment.

Transportation and time: Especially in rural areas, it may be hard for young people to get to trainings and research meetings. The time investment in a research project is also significant, which is why Schweitzer and Jivanjee both paid their participants. Make sure that your youth are aware of the necessary commitment and timeframe for any research they agree to. 

Six Tips for Becoming a More ‘Youth-Driven’ Organization

Photograph of young people holding folders and looking at the camera.If you want to know what youth engagement looks like, just visit the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, MI. The afterschool drop-in center for high-school-age youth offers 21 weekly programs in music, education, literature, visual arts and leadership—almost all planned and facilitated by teens with support from adult advisors. Neutral Zone youth run a recording studio and an independent literary press, and they facilitate discussion groups. Youth also serve on the organization’s board, take part in hiring decisions, give the thumbs up or down to new programs, and have carte blanche to decorate the walls with posters, graffiti and artwork.

“In a youth-driven way, we decide what’s going to happen here within our four walls,” says Executive Director John Weiss.

Weiss says Neutral Zone’s “youth-driven” approach promotes young people’s social and emotional well-being and prepares them for the future, while at the same time attracting more teens to the program. And though Neutral Zone largely serves middle class, white young people, Weiss says any youth-serving organization can reap the benefits of a strong commitment to engaging and empowering young people, regardless of the population it works with.

In a pilot study of Neutral Zone’s “Youth-Driven Space” model, young people from eight Michigan programs, including Runaway and Homeless Youth Program grantee Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit, became more comfortable with and proficient at problem solving, organizing, thinking creatively, setting goals and processing information in a group—skills that can lead to self-sufficiency and improved social and emotional well-being.

“Whatever your mission,” Weiss says “there are ways of giving young people voice and decision-making authority to not only improve their experience but also improve the mission of your work.”

Here are six things you can do to start involving young people in program planning and decision making:

  1. Give yourself a report card. Neutral Zone developed what they call the Youth-Driven Space Formative Index to help organization's determine where they fall on the youth engagement scale. You can use the index's “youth-driven components” as discussion points, or focus on improving one of them for a period of time (say, three months). (Contact Weiss at Neutral Zone if you'd like to see the index.)
  2. Hand over responsibility. What are the roles that adults currently do that youth could support? For example, Maggie, 18, a youth participant in the Youth-Driven Space trial and now a part-time staff member at Advocacy Services for Kids, or ASK, in Kalamazoo, MI, says youth can prepare meeting agendas and assign tasks for an activity, instead of an adult.
  3. Institute ‘no-adult-talking time.’ Despite their good intentions of letting young people have a say, adults often hold forth, says Laurie Van Egeren, a Michigan State University researcher who evaluated the Youth-Driven Space pilot. Ask grown-ups to stay silent for a 10-minute stretch, letting youth take charge of the conversation without interruption.
  4. Think about ‘sustainability.’ Weiss suggests helping teens who are leading a youth advisory board or a project to think about how they will prepare other teens to take on the same roles when they step down.
  5. Get a coach. Find an organization that successfully engages young people, and ask their staff if they’d consider providing monthly pep talks by phone, in a video conference or in person, depending on where they are located.
  6. Give youth big and little ways to lead. Young people, especially those concerned about day-to-day survival or those with histories of abuse who may have difficulty trusting adults, may need easy, low-stress ways to get involved at first. But eventually, Weiss says, a youth-driven culture replicates itself. Observing other youth making decisions and acting as adults’ equals can be an entry point for youth. Then you can ease them into serving on a committee or planning an event.

“If everything on the walls is by teens and there are teen engineers in the recording studio, it builds interest and confidence,” Weiss says. “Then staff can really interest youth and pull them in.”

Read More

Evaluation of the Youth-Driven Spaces Project” (PDF, 358KB)

Youth-Driven Space: Teen Organizations That Build 21st Century Skills” (PDF, 645KB)