Image courtesy of Michigan’s Children.
Organizing with youth can be a powerful way to achieve lasting policy change that directly benefits children in your community. But it also brings a significant set of considerations, both practical and ethical. In this final blog in the youth organizing series, experienced advocates from around the nation share some of the tools that help make their youth organizing programs successful.
While many of us practically live in our email inboxes, teenagers not so much. Every organization juggles a variety of communication techniques – in addition to email – to make sure youth know when meetings are happening, what to expect, and how to stay in touch with leaders:
- Apps like GroupMe or WhatsApp are popular choices that can help avoid an ethical dilemma: adult staffers texting directly with kids. They also eliminate the dreaded never-ending text threads that feel more like the kitchen junk drawer than a communication technique.
- The youth leaders of ACTION Ohio and the Ohio Youth Advisory Board started their own private Facebook groups to work together, and stay in regular contact with each other between official meetings.
It may be counter-intuitive, but creating a more selective recruitment and application process can generate more youth interest and buy-in to be part of your youth organizing program.
Marion County Commission on Youth (MCCOY) recruits high school students to apply for a limited number of seats in their youth advocacy and organizing programs. One of the key parts of screening is talking to kids about their priorities, and whether they really have the time for another commitment.
“You have prom, you have graduations, you have college visits, you have sports, you have SATs. I ask them to put that in order for me,” says MCCOY’s Lamarr Davis II.
Most organizations working with youth provide a significant amount of training for their members, especially when it comes to advocacy skills.
In organizing youth-led candidate forums, Teri Banas at Michigan’s Children says the youth decide for themselves what questions to ask the candidates – but first they are trained on who these candidates are and what they are running for: “Okay, you’re gonna be seeing candidates for Congress, Senate, State House,” says Banas. “So what responsibilities do these individuals have? Who are they? We help them understand what to expect.”
Parent involvement is key to keeping kids engaged, and operating programs safely. Organizations use different strategies to keep parents in the loop:
- MCCOY holds a parent orientation at the start of the year to make sure parents understand what’s coming and what’s expected. They also send parents and youth a detailed email blast at the start of each season.
- The Children’s Agenda (NY) and Voices for Virginia’s Children both view their youth organizing programs as part of an intergenerational strategy, built on organizing with parents and caregivers as well as youth.
Carmen Torres of the Children’s Agenda said their intergenerational work really got started because parents asked if they could bring their children along on advocacy day: “The kids got to experience what it looks like to lobby, what it looks like to rally and to speak to people… It was very heartwarming to see that acceptance of both the parent bringing them in, and then the kids themselves coming out and giving little something about themselves to support the cause.”
Every organization covers the cost of youth participation, for items like meals and transportation. Many use other methods to recognize the value of youth contributions, including stipends, scholarships, or an hourly wage.
- Some organizations track participation in meetings and activities in order to qualify for a monthly stipend.
- Others prefer not to have to monitor or rank different youths’ levels of participation, opting instead to simply cover direct costs.
Safety & Ethics
There is nothing more important to consider than the safety and well-being of any youth involved in your programs. Most organizations have basic safety requirements in place, such as never having adults alone with a youth, as well as not having youth alone with each other. Some also require training for their staff on first aid, CPR, youth mental health first aid, and/or the prevention of child exploitation.
Voices for Virginia’s Children uses a healing-centered model of engagement developed by Dr. Shawn Ginwright of the Flourish Agenda. Voices is fortunate to have a licensed clinical social worker running their youth program, who has almost 10 years of experience in youth mental health. While not every organization has that level of staff resources in-house, every organization can and should take youth safety and wellbeing just as seriously.
Organizing with youth – and their families – can be transformational for your organization, and the people in it. Rachael Deane of Voices for Virginia’s Children shared a powerful moment from their most recent advocacy week:
“My son had just been diagnosed with autism,” says Deane. “One of our young people is autistic. That night at our caregivers’ dinner, his mom shared the story of being told that he would never speak. And yet here he was leading our press conference! For me personally, I had not realized how much I needed to have this fellowship and relate to these other parents.”
Many thanks to Teri Banas of Michigan’s Children, LaMarr Davis II of Marion County Commission on Youth, Rachael Deane of Voices for Virginia’s Children, Mark Mecum of the Ohio Children’s Alliance, Erin Nescott of KIDS COUNT in Delaware, Eamonn Scanlon and Carmen Torres of The Children’s Agenda (NY) for generously sharing their expertise and insights on youth organizing.