Maybe every day seems like #YouthDay at your organization, but in recognition of the U.N.’s International Youth Day, which has a theme this year of civic engagement, Youth Today presents this story from the field showing the power of youth voices that advocates for the effective engagement of young leaders in the organizations that aim to serve them.
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I recently reconnected with Jessica Lovius, a fun-loving 18-year-old of Haitian descent bound for Franklin & Marshall College this fall on a Posse scholarship. She smiled broadly as she left the White House, where she represented After-school All-Stars (ASAS) at Michelle Obama’s Beating the Odds Summit on July 23. The gathering brought together 136 low-income high school students to promote the skills needed to graduate high school and attend college.
When I asked Jessica what she got from her trip to the White House, she said, “I was reminded how important it is to be a leader and that my opinion matters to adults.”
These are important lessons all too often lost on adults in education. Working in Washington, D.C., there is no shortage of youth-serving leaders, funders, researchers, policymakers, advocates, conference organizers and training gurus who love what they do for young people but miss the daily interaction they once had with kids in a classroom, camp or after-school setting. As one colleague joked, “There are way too many groups with ‘children’ in their name, but with staff who would be hard-pressed to name any children.”
To guard against this harmful disconnect, ASAS, a national out-of-school time organization serving nearly 75,000 urban middle school students, has invested significant time and resources in creating a national Youth Advisory Board (YAB), with one or two rising eighth-grade students from each of our 18 chapters.
As a 13-year-old, Jessica represented ASAS Miami on our inaugural youth advisory board wilderness trip to Colorado and gave our national staff constructive criticism on how to ensure our We Are Ready high school transition program was less dry, more interactive and relevant for our students. Our staff listened and incorporated her thoughts , which has made our curriculum more effective.
Each year since, we annually select and convene a new crop of youth advisory board members (Yabbies) and bring them to Washington for a weeklong leadership institute called All-Star University. Our students, many of whom have never traveled on an airplane or outside their state, benefit from this experience, but our staff gain even more.
Certainly, there are many examples of groups that include youth voices in their decision-making, such as America’s Promise, which reserves spots for students on their board of trustees, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Mayor’s Youth Council. Even though having a youth advisory board is not a new idea, it remains a valuable yet widely underleveraged tool among education leaders.
Incorporating student opinions into our daily work requires a big commitment by adults to really seek out, listen to and integrate youth feedback into decisions. We have found running our national youth advisory board to be essential to our work, with four key benefits.
1. Our YAB helps test and improve curriculum and messaging.
Every year countless vendors across the country pitch new curricula they insist our students will love. We invite these folks to YAB gatherings and offer them the chance to demonstrate their program directly before our students. This year, our YAB and staff tried coding and technology classes from Google and Global DJ Academy, film-based character curriculum from True Spark and nutrition curricula from Common Threads. Our staff saw how it might be implemented and students were able to give us — and the vendors — their feedback on classes we should offer, and how they should be taught and marketed during the year.
2. We are not just training leaders of tomorrow but rather leaders for today.
The challenges community leaders face are complex, real and urgent. Our students are aware and don’t want to watch from the sidelines or wait to grow up to get involved. Through our national Life Service Action initiative, they receive year-round public speaking, leadership and project management skills, along with mentoring and issue expertise so they can effectively lead their own local youth advisory boards and service-learning projects. They are also charged to educate and engage staff, community partners, teachers and local ASAS boards of directors as allies in their efforts. Each year, our Yabbies commit thousands of hours, leading dozens of projects and mobilizing hundreds of their peers in service.
At this year’s institute, students met with leaders from Alliance for a Healthier Generation (about obesity) America’s Promise (about high school graduation) Opportunity Nation (regarding unemployment), and Youth Service America and National Organization of Youth Safety (service learning) to better understand issues and how to develop technology-based ideas to make a difference. Their ASAS staff chaperones are also trained on the ins and outs of service learning and tasked with supporting students in implementing projects once they return home.
3. Our Yabbies engage adults better than we do.
Both adults and students can easily get bored listening in class, but adults usually better fake paying attention. We find nothing keep adults paying attention in training better than a student speaker. Adults participating in our training sessions listen more closely when they know they will have to employ the skills they just learned with real students entering the room a few minutes later. This gives life to our mantra “No training about kids without kids.”
In turn, our students learn their voice matters when our staff, congressional staffers, program officers at foundations and even leaders in the White House take time to sit with them and ask them questions. Our YAB also allows partners, like the Afterschool Alliance, National Summer Learning Association and the Mazda Foundation, to see and hear how their efforts impact lives of students.
In after-school, we say students come for the program but come back for the staff. All our goals and success can’t be accomplished without great staff and caring youth-adult relationships. To help us, we are beginning to incorporate YAB students in our staff hiring interviews and evaluations as well.
4. Any student can be a great leader and YAB participant.
Our YAB application process seeks students enrolled in ASAS programs who are not simply the best athletes or get the best grades but rather those who try hardest and will benefit most from the unique opportunity. The confidence students gain from serving on our YAB, when they have rarely been selected for anything before, transfers to other realms of their lives and reinforces our goal to have them view themselves as leaders. With more qualified applicants than available spots, we continue to create more leadership programs and opportunities. The more trained student leaders we have with a sense of ownership for the programs, the more well attended and effective they are and the smaller the burden that falls on the shoulders of a few.
A great irony of a career in youth development is that the more one moves up in title, pay and responsibility, the more one deals with budgets, fundraising and concerns of adults while having less interaction with the youth they serve. Those organizational tasks are essential, but if additional groups established, supported and properly trained their own YABs, we could collectively fill a large void in our field.
Especially for nondirect service organizations focused on improving conditions for disadvantaged youth, the need for creating a YAB couldn’t be more clear. I’ve heard some leaders say, “I’d like to have one but where would I find the students?” The answer is groups like ASAS would happily nominate their best student leaders to serve on the boards of partner groups.
So the next time education leaders sit in a big meeting or conference with other adults discussing how to better support students, they should think about which voices are missing at the table and how to find them. Creating more Youth Advisory Boards with student leaders like Jessica would be a great place to start.
Aaron Philip Dworkin is president of the After-School All-Stars National Network in Washington, D.C. Through free after-school and summer programs in more than 350 Title I schools in 18 cities, ASAS works to keep kids safe and healthy, help them graduate, explore careers they love and give back to others.
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