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