The New Era of Youth Engagement: Insights from Aspen

Amanda Shabowich, Youth Voice Project, Boston Opportunity Youth Collaborative

What does authentic engagement of Opportunity Youth really look like these days? This was one of the big questions at the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund Grantee Convening hosted a few weeks ago by the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions.

I attended the session on authentic youth engagement through the lens of Opportunity Youth United (OYU), a grassroots organization that began with a set of recommendations (created by the National Council of Young Leaders) that focus on increasing opportunities for young people.

Upon entering the session, it felt like walking in to a diverse national family reunion. I was immediately struck by the amount of young leaders both attending and presenting.

The icebreaker, led by Jamiel Alexander, instilled the sense of fun and togetherness that is so often overlooked at large convenings. Then Shawnice Jackson began by introducing OYU. With these two young professionals and OYU leaders opening the session, it was immediately clear how prominent youth voice is at all steps of this movement. It has always been about getting all the different young people and youth-serving organizations to come together on a citywide, state, and, eventually, national level. Jamiel remarked on the Community Action Team model of OYU, “We are here to serve and we serve nationally… But how can we be effective at home?”

To further illustrate the local efforts in communities that are affiliated with OYU, most of the session focused on a panel of representatives from cities that have started to adopt this Community Action Team model, including New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Seattle. They spoke not only on the work they are doing around this national movement, but also how their communities were authentically engaging young people and keeping youth voice at the center of the work.

As each young leader spoke about being connected into their local collaboratives, a common theme emerged: they were treated as equals by their adult collaborative and community members. Kimberly Pham, a youth leader with OYU and Philadelphia’s Project U-Turn stated, “I’ve been a part of my collaborative not just as a youth representative, but as an equal and I feel valued by my team as a young professional.” Ryan Dalton, a youth leader with OYU and New Orleans’ EMPLOY collaborative emphasized the importance of joining a team and feeling like he was a part of a “good relationship,” further enforcing the idea that young people need to be taken seriously and given real leadership roles, not tokenized.

While that might seem obvious to some, the real challenge has been how exactly to go about making young people a real part of these collaboratives, as a real part of youth-serving work. Stephanie Gambone, OYIF site lead at Project U-Turn remarked on the importance of just listening. “Put your work experience aside,” she said, “and just listen to young people.” Karen Terrado, a former youth leader and current youth development program manager at SOAR in Seattle encouraged others to “put the people who are directly impacted at the center of everything, because that is the core of why you’re all even coming together.”

As the session progressed, it was like watching a living model of what authentic youth engagement could be—with the conversation being led by young people and advice given by young people, while the adults served a role of support and alliance.

All too often young leaders are put in adult-dominated spaces and tasked to “represent,” and in this session it was refreshing to see a youth-dominated space where adults were not trying to dominate the conversation or speak over their young leaders.  Even more refreshing were the adult responses in the room. The youth panelists articulated time and again the importance of supportive adults who genuinely listen and react to what young people say they want and need. All too often young people’s expressions of what they need are met with “but’s,” but in this session they were met with head nods and murmurs of agreement. The youth leaders’ recommendations to have adults in this field who genuinely want success for their young people was not met with pushback or defensiveness, but a knowledge that they were not the experts on this topic: the young people were.

What resonated most, though, with me and throughout the room, was the idea that young people are more than someone who can tell their story, more than a testimonial.

Kimberly Pham said it best when she stated, “Reassure your collaborative that having young people at the table, really a part of co-creating the solutions to their problems, is so important. They are the experts, they live with these issues, these barriers, and these systems every single day. They can help your collaborative in progressing, that the programs they are involved in become better for future cohorts, and it’s important that youth engagement is truly important. Not just at the testimonial level, but really treating them as an equal counterpart or as a consultant.”

Like many others, I have seen over and over that young adults in these fields are propped up like a puppet and told to be vulnerable in front of a crowd. They are prompted to share their experiences, often some really traumatic and tender ones, to garner sympathy, to move adults, and to reinforce the importance of what they say is needed. That is no longer enough to count as authentically engaging youth. And honestly, it never really was.

We are now in a space where it is unacceptable to tokenize these young adults, to take their real lives and only choose the pieces of it that are convenient to moving an agenda, and that it is absolutely necessary to put the focus on youth voice. Youth voice and youth leadership looks like a youth organized movement, it looks like folks that feel cared for and supported in their future, and it looks like a session dominated by youth giving their recommendations for youth engagement.