Youth Consultants For Change

Summer is coming. In communities across the country, nonprofits, schools, faith groups and businesses will offer young people a broad range of structured opportunities. Some of those opportunities will even give young people a chance to help other youth.

But how many organizations will ask youth to help expand or improve their core work? How many will bring on youth as consultants to help change communities?

“Youth participation” is a given in youth agencies. “Youth as resources” has almost become cliché. “Youth organizing” is the new powerhouse phrase. But “youth consulting for community change” is food for thought. Here’s why:

A few years ago the Forum for Youth Investment staff and I had a chance to learn about dozens of organizations by interviewing dozens of youth and youth workers who had pushed beyond youth development toward youth action – young people involved in service, organizing, advocacy, governance and entrepreneurship in neighborhoods and in the major institutions that affect their lives.

These organizations had compelling rationales for why young people should be involved. Each offered a combination of skill-building, awareness-building and change-making opportunities.

Interestingly, however, most had lopsided measures of the payoff of such youth involvement. They had bold hopes for the benefits to young people and clear ways of measuring those benefits. But the defined benefits to the community were timid and fuzzy.

There must be ways for youth organizations to hold themselves accountable for trying to improve communities and to help young people contribute to and assess progress. An idea for how this could happen hit me while I was facilitating a meeting of community partners with Community IMPACT!, a forum affiliate in Nashville, Tenn.

Like many youth leadership organizations, Community IMPACT! gives young people in low-income communities an opportunity to combine work, learning and action. Agency leaders recognize that youth, especially poor youth, must often choose between making money and making change. They understand that helping youth do both requires sharpening their academic, social and leadership skills.

To accomplish this, the agency took a bold step: It raised money to hire young people to work not only for Community IMPACT! but also in other community organizations.

The selected organizations – including a science center, a church and an economic development corporation – were committed to improving youth opportunities in East Nashville, and were seen as having the capacity to continue hiring young people in leadership positions in the future.

There is no doubt that this strategy can work. The question is: Can shifting the thinking about young people’s roles in an adult organization accelerate changes in organizations and their communities?

In a 1996 column, I quoted a South African youth worker as saying, “We cannot help young people become generators if we ourselves are batteries.” I emphasized the need to shift from viewing youth workers as the source of energy to viewing them as catalysts for youth engagement.

Youth consulting for community change takes this idea to the next level. Staff members train youth to act as generators within community organizations. Youth help organizations generate positive community change. And youth and adult staff come together to support a network of organizations devoted to changing the odds for youth.

How? Rather than deploying youth to fulfill internships at each organization, staff members see themselves and the youth as consultants to organizations, expanding educational and economic opportunities for other youth. Their goal: to provide technical support to organizations and leverage the work of the network as a whole.

This means sitting down with each organization to understand the goals, strategies, timeline and the short-term indicators of success; developing youth consulting plans that may not have young people neatly assigned in pairs, working 9-5 shifts; allowing the core staff to become a critical part of the technical assistance team; and training the young people as ethnographers and participant observers to document progress toward the goal.

So think about this summer: An organization that trains and deploys a dozen young people in internships helps 12 youths increase their odds of success. But imagine the impact those young people could have as part of a youth/adult firm that is committed to helping 12 organizations create a network of opportunities – opportunities to help youth and families throughout the community improve their odds as well.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This article and links to related readings are available at www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.


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