Homegrown Youth Organizing

Several Partnership members are growing their own youth-led organizing programs to inform and energize policy advocacy


Virginia Youth Advocates at the 2023 Youth Mental Health Summit sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Photo courtesy of Voices for Virginia’s Children.

Youth can bring energy, fresh perspectives, and first-person experience to child advocacy organizations. There are many different models for how to bring youth voices and leadership into policy work. In this second blog in the youth organizing series, we’re taking a look at child advocacy organizations who develop their own in-house youth organizing programs.

Indiannapolis youth keep local elected leaders accountable

Among the Partnership’s members, Marion County Commission on Youth (located in Indianapolis) is the grand-daddy of youth organizing. MCCOY has been around for thirty years; its purpose is to facilitate, convene, and coordinate youth services in the Indy area.

Director of Youth Empowerment & Engagement LaMarr Davis II leads several of MCCOY’s programs, including the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council – now in its sixth year. LaMarr’s background in media, PR, and event promotion make him a dynamic leader who knows how to recruit youth and make sure they have fun while they’re making a difference. 

Twenty-nine Indy youth participated in the Mayor’s Leadership Council this year, developing skills like fundraising, event planning and promotion, and time management while they learned about local government and policy issues. 

“I want them to have a passion for civic leadership, and have a passion for their community, their schools,” says Davis. “A lot of the kids have big dreams, you know, like when Roe v. Wade was overturned, they came in like ‘Oh we got to do something!’ Now of course that’s important, but that’s federal level. You got to understand your power on this block, in your neighborhood, at your school, and then we can go up to the state house and then the federal level.”

Youth perspectives on data and policy in Delaware

Because Delaware KIDS COUNT is based at the University of Delaware, both undergrad and graduate students work for the agency each year – bringing a constant stream of youth perspectives to the work. In addition, a high school student serves on the organization’s board, ensuring youth voice in governance and strategy.

Associate Policy Scientist Erin Nescott says those youth voices have been central to developing a long-term strategy built around the expertise of young people, that the organization is calling “KIDS COUNT Student Fellows.” As it develops, the program will engage students in real-world data and policy analysis affecting Delaware youth. Students will work on complex problems and propose solutions, using student challenge programs like Delaware Diamond Challenge or Science Olympiad as a model.

Nescott emphasized how youth leadership on the organization’s board has helped the organization dig deeper and push the envelope when it comes to shaping programs and strategies for the agency.

“One of our founding principles for all of this has really been ‘nothing about us without us’,” she said. As a data- and policy-focused organization, Delaware KIDS COUNT is involving youth in every level of data collection, analysis, and policy development.

Virginia’s Youth in Action advance mental health policies

In May Voices for Virginia’s Children celebrated a graduation with twelve youth who participated in their first youth advocacy cohort, Virginia’s Youth in Action. Youth in the program chose mental health as their policy issue area, elevating the issue on Voices’ policy agenda as well. One youth member in particular worked closely with the head of the state’s Legislative Commission on Behavioral Health to pass new legislation on trauma education for teachers.

Executive Director Rachael Deane says the organization dedicates significant resources to managing the program: one full-time staff member (who is a licensed clinical social worker), supported by a masters student working approximately 20 hours per week. Drawing from this deep expertise, Voices uses a trauma-informed approach to advocacy, ensuring a safe and responsive environment for youth advocates.

“The impact has been greater than the sum of all the individual parts,” says Deane. “It has created new energy in our organization and has created a lot of power, really a feeling that we’re not alone in trying to protect our young people.”

Stay tuned for more blogs in this series on youth organizing

Many thanks to LaMarr Davis II, Rachael Deane, and Erin Nescott for generously sharing their expertise and insights on youth organizing. In part one of this series, we focused on partnering with youth-led organizations. Stay tuned for part three in this series, Nuts & Bolts of Youth Organizing.