Go to the Experts: Deep Partnerships for Youth Advocacy

Members around the nation leverage partnerships with youth-led organizations to win lasting policy change


Youth-led candidate forum in Bay City, MI. Photo courtesy of Michigan’s Children

Speaking up for kids means speaking up with kids. As more advocacy organizations seek to bring youth voices to the policy arena, we reached out to several Partnership members who are leaders in this work. 

There are many different models for how to organize with youth. In our first blog in this youth organizing series, we’re taking a look at child advocacy organizations who partner with long-standing youth-led organizations to achieve their policy objectives together.

Youth-Led Candidate Forums in Michigan

Teri Banas of Michigan’s Children calls this approach “going straight to the experts.” Michigan’s Children collaborates with youth-led organizations in many ways, perhaps most notably in its non-partisan Youth-Led Candidate Forums.

In 2022, Michigan’s Children worked with 19 local non-profits and youth-led groups to run 11 candidate forums on local, state and federal races. They also produced a companion voter guide covering issues raised as most important by youth and their families.

Candidate forums lead organically to relationships with elected officials – and eventually to better public policy.  “It’s an opportunity to raise up the experiences of young people in front of potential policy makers, so that elected officials can become more knowledgeable about what’s impacting the youth in their communities,” said Teri Banas. “But it’s also very important to build relationships with young people and lawmakers and the organizations that represent them.”

At one forum in Bay City, Michigan’s Children and the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Great Lakes Bay educated lawmakers about the impact of after-school programs – and about how state funding is falling short of the need. As a result, the proposed state budget for 2023-24 will include $25-50 million in new funding for high-impact after-school programs.

Long-standing relationships in Rochester

The Children’s Agenda (NY) has a long-standing partnership with Teen Empowerment, an organization with deep roots in Rochester. Eamonn Scanlon and Carmen Torres of the Children’s Agenda described how Teen Empowerment’s proven model of hiring annual cohorts of youth organizers has created a sustainable partnership with new generations of youth each year. These youth organizers are hungry to learn about the levers of power, and how to use those levers to make change for their communities. 

Students have traveled to the state capitol in Albany to testify on legislation such as the Solutions Not Suspensions bill. They have worked collaboratively on improving the Rochester City Schools budget for student priorities such as more social workers,  and improved school meals. The Children’s Agenda also reserves a permanent seat on its Board of Directors for a representative from Teen Empowerment. This ensures that there is a youth perspective at every level of the organization’s decision-making. 

Carmen Torres’ service on the Community Engagement Teams in several Rochester public schools creates another natural avenue for students and their parents to inform the Children’s Agenda’s work. Whether organizing advocacy trainings, forums, or lobby days at the state capitol, Carmen focuses on creating a sense of belonging for the youth and parents who participate.

Providing the Scaffolding for Youth-Led Organizations in Ohio

“Every child-focused organization, including mine, should feel obligated to figure out a way to have youth engagement,” says Mark Mecum of the Ohio Children’s Alliance. The Ohio Children’s Alliance provides administrative backbone as fiscal sponsors for two youth-led organizations: Action Ohio, and the Ohio Youth Advisory Board. What the Ohio Children’s Alliance does not do, is tell those youth organizations what to focus on.

Working together with former foster youth and homeless youth, Ohio Children’s Alliance has achieved some impressive policy victories. One of these is Bridges, Ohio’s extended foster care program, which exists because of years of collaborative advocacy. Another is the new federal FYI Program, Foster Youth to Independence, a federally-funded HUD housing voucher program for youth aging out of foster care. Youth met with Congressman Mike Turner, former HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and ultimately created a program that has been implemented nationwide. 

“If a youth and young adult organization, advisory board, council, whatever you want to call it, is going be successful, youth have to have buy into it,” says Mark Mecum. “And if it looks and feels like it’s a sounding board for your organization and you invite them in to give you advice: That’s not at all what they’re interested in. They’re interested in working together with peers to create goals and to achieve them.”

Stay tuned for more blogs in this series on youth organizing

Many thanks to Teri Banas, Carmen Torres, Eamonn Scanlon, and Mark Mecum for generously sharing their expertise and insights on youth organizing for this blog series. Our next blog in this series will focus on in-house youth organizing programs – stay tuned!