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Youth Engagement

Self-Reflection Exercise
Thinking back to your middle or high school years, were you ever told...
  • You are too young to understand.
  • Because I said so.
  • You pay attention when I am talking to you.
  • Not now, I do not have the time.
  • You are just a kid.
How did it make you feel?

Have you ever addressed a young person in this way?

Authentic Youth Engagement

Over the past 20 years the youth development field has struggled to engage young people in meaningful ways. Well-intentioned attempts to create decision-making positions for young people placed youth on boards of directors or put them in charge of community projects, only to fail because youth and adults were not prepared to work together in this new arrangement -- youth-adult partnership.

Youth-Adult Partnership

How do we define youth-adult partnership? In 1974 the National Commission on Resources for Youth described this relationship as "involving youth in responsible, challenging action that meets genuine needs, with the opportunity for planning and/or decision-making affecting others...There is mutuality in teaching and learning (between youth and adults)...each group sees itself as a resource for the other and offers what it uniquely can provide."

Building on this definition, we see an equitable partnership between young people and adults as the foundation for effective youth engagement. This partnership can occur in programs, organizations, or communities, and it is a critical and much-needed positive youth development strategy to institutionalize and sustain youth voice.

Barriers to Youth Engagement

Youth engagement loses authenticity when adults are conflicted about questions of power and control. In his Ladder of Children's Participation, Roger Hart described in detail levels of non-authentic and authentic youth engagement. The first levels of manipulation, decoration, and tokenism denote failed or false attempts at youth engagement, when young people appear to be in decision-making positions but in reality have no or very little input on events.

A powerful underlying reason for non-authentic youth engagement is adultism -- the behavior and attitudes that flow out of negative stereotypes adults hold about young people. Adultism is rooted in the belief that young people lack intelligence or ability. This belief is strongly supported by societal norms which leave young people feeling that they are not valued, respected, or heard. Even adults who deeply care for young people may have internalized these misconceptions and may not be aware that they are behaving in an adultist manner.


Being Y-AP Savvy (PDF), by Shepherd Zeldin and Jessica Collura, is a primer on creating and sustaining youth-adult partnerships.

Understanding Adultism, a 1995 article by John Bell, defines "adultism" and discusses its implications for our work with young people.

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