In 2022, the Communities Ending Poverty network raised the following question: How can we engage youth as leaders in poverty reduction efforts?
Strategies for engaging youth
Communities Ending Poverty members reported having tried several different ways to engage young people in local poverty reduction initiatives. These included:
- Compensating youth (with funds raised through grants or partners)
- Focusing on issues that motivate youth (e.g., gardening and other food initiatives)
- Incorporating fun activities (e.g., swimming or other recreation)
- Engaging with youth where they’re already engaged (through partner organizations or local associations)
However, several challenges remain in making engagement accessible and sustained, engaging a breadth of youth, and establishing more pathways into leadership roles.
Recommendations from youth
At Tamarack Institute events on July 20 and 26, 2022, local and national youth leaders shared experiences and advice on how collaboratives could keep improving their youth engagement strategies.
Their recommendations included the following:
1. Clarify Purpose
Engage youth as valued partners and experts of today, not as the leaders of tomorrow. Clarify from the start – What makes youth essential to your initiative?
2. Ask, Don’t Assume
Ask youth how they want to be engaged and what they expect. As experts in their experience, ask for ideas and for their help co-designing the space, don’t assume. A conversation with even just one youth can reveal why they aren’t engaging.
3. Look for Champions
Start by engaging and building trust with one or two youth meaningfully; they can be champions in helping to reach more youth.
4. Build Trust
Youth need to see their elicited opinions actualized in decisions and recommendations. It encourages them to keep coming back.
5. Create Collectivity
Engage a collective of youth so that they have peers to discuss and do the work with (e.g., multiple youth staff, youth advisory group).
6. Support, Don’t Lead
Youth can’t lead if they’re always being led. Unequal power dynamics exist between adults and youth, and youth often feel there’s an adult in a leadership position with more education. Acknowledge power imbalances, mitigate them and create space where adults aren’t ‘in-charge’, but are listening for how youth want to be supported. This includes movements, such as climate change, which can often be adult dominated.
Equip youth with tools and skills to reach their full potential, such as ongoing mentorship opportunities and access to data to support their own advocacy initiatives.
8. Construct psychologically safe spaces
Create a culture in your organization where youth feel comfortable sharing their honest opinions/ideas and while also dissenting at times.
The most involved/academic/privileged youth are often engaged over and over because they are most likely to hear about opportunities for engagement. Diversify the ways youth can provide feedback with simple methods that reach many people (e.g., frequent school surveys, art). Engagement doesn’t have to be a big commitment.
10. Offer paid pathways
The pathway towards leadership is often unattainable because it is unpaid (e.g., volunteering, co-ops, mentorship) and many youth – especially those living on low income – choose paid jobs over unpaid career growth opportunities.
11. Keep going
Engage youth this way at the beginning, middle and end of the initiative. It’s important for youth to be engaged throughout the project.
We heard that no matter how advanced collaboratives were in youth engagement, there were still ways they felt they could improve meaningfully engaging with youth.
Take Your Learning Further
More tips for engaging youth can be found by reading or watching the resources below:
- How to meaningfully include youth at every decision-making table, by Haleema Ahmed
- GUIDE | Meaningfully Engaging Youth
- Webinar Series | Engaging Underrepresented Youth
- Webinar | Youth Leading on Issues that Matter to Them: Climate, Poverty and Affordability
Thank you to Webinar and Community of Practice panelists who contributed their knowledge, experience and ideas to this blog post:
- Haleema Ahmed, York University; Prime Minister’s Youth Council
- Manvir Bhangu, Laadliyan, Celebrating & Empowering Daughters
- Sydney Campbell, University of Toronto; Children First Canada
- Fadumo Diriye, Youthful Cities
- Jelise Keating, Future North
- Taylor Smith, Communities Building Youth Futures – Corner Brook