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Practice What You Preach: 3 Steps to Elevate Youth Voice

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By Sooah Rho

Youth are almost always talked about, not talked with. I think it's time we change that.

Those of us at organizations working to improve student outcomes must approach the work with the understanding that youth should be involved in envisioning and creating those outcomes. Processes in which people in power make decisions without consulting the people who are impacted by those decisions uphold the very inequities that we hope to tackle, and are ultimately a disservice to our communities.

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So, how can you become more youth-centered and operationally inclusive and responsive? Youth will need training and support to start practicing leadership and advocacy skills; staff will need training and support to be stronger allies to youth; and the organization, school, or system itself will need to commit to a culture of improvement and learning. While the process will look different in every setting, here are three simple, universal tips to get started.

  1. Figure out your purpose for engaging youth - then make a plan to get there
    While everybody conceptually wants to incorporate youth voice, very few actually dedicate the time and resources needed to make it happen. To ensure you are setting yourself up for success, make sure you have conversations with stakeholders at all levels to envision what this work will look like. What decisions will your students inform? Will they have more of an advisory role or a direct decision-making role? How will you support youth in developing their ideas? How will their time and efforts be compensated? Make sure everyone that will be involved in or impacted by this work is on the same page about what is happening and why.
  1. Combat "adultism" head-on
    Adultism is the idea that adults always know best. The last time I knew exactly what it's like to be a teenager was...when I was a teenager. Despite this gap in understanding, adults tend to act as deciders and judges of what youth actually want and need. Staff will need support in examining their own adultism and readiness to learn, as well as to develop tools for being an ally to the young people they serve and work with.
  1. Recruit youth partners
    Partnering with youth can mean youth on a board, a youth council, a team, a taskforce; it could be three students or it could be 30. Start meeting with the number of students that feels right, then grow your group to be even more representative of the youth you serve. You'll want to recruit at least three youth that are preferably not at the beginning or end of their time with you, and have expressed an interest in leadership development. You aren't looking for students to be perfectly groomed leaders, you're looking for those with the willingness to learn and grow.

Building out structures for youth to exercise their voice within our organizations and schools ensures that they are developing the skills to be lifelong leaders and activists, and that institutions are cultivating the power of young people to change their communities.

Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @SuccessNYC -- what are some ways you are elevating youth voice already? What further questions do you have?

Photo: Sooah Rho speaks during a Student Success Network workshop with youth and adults. (Courtesy of SSN)

Sooah Rho is the Director of Youth Program and Partnership for the Student Success Network (SSN). She currently leads SSN's efforts to elevate youth to the forefront of change by supporting and training both youth and adults throughout New York City. Prior to joining SSN, Sooah was an English teacher with Teach for America in Oakland, Calif.

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