Lessons from the Youth-Driven Spaces Project

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Four years ago, the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, Mich., worked with eight local organizations seeking a more youth-driven approach. This coaching and training program was done in collaboration with the. David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality.

Researchers from Michigan State University evaluated the project and made four recommendations to organizations seeking to become youth-driven:

  1. Create a teen advisory council.
    This structure lets young people run activities, make program decisions, set policy and even hire staff. Staff and administrators provide support for this core group of teen leaders. The council serves as the pipeline for keeping youth involved in decision-making, researchers said.
  2. Dedicate staff members to the transformation.
    Staff members must have time and responsibility to support youth leadership. A key staff member must be dedicated to working actively in support of the teen advisory council. This person must also work with the coach and administrators to set goals.
  3. Install youth on the board of directors.
    When youth take on this higher role, they shift the power dynamics between youth and adults, which is key to sustaining a youth-driven model. When youth join the board, it institutionalizes the approach.
  4. Align the mission, policies and procedure with youth-driven practices.
    These changes are best made in collaboration with youth in the organization. This can be a challenging effort and problems may arise, researchers said. The support of a coach is particularly helpful.

The evaluators concluded that the project helped youth develop socially and emotionally and master a variety of 21st century skills. They concluded the project promoted organizational change and could be used in diverse programs.

Organizations or programs seeking to become more youth-driven can go through several stages, the researchers said. To get to a stage of sustainability, the staff must be formally trained and able to train others, they said.

The organization must have a pipeline of youth to ensure a continuity of youth engagement. Experienced youth should mentor younger ones.

In addition, the organization must institutionalize youth-driven practices in the group’s mission, bylaws and values, they said.

Source: Evaluation of the Youth-Driven Spaces Project, Community Evaluation and Research Collaborative University of Michigan.

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