Engaging Youth in Dialogue and Decision Making
How Adults Can Help Young People Amplify Their Voice
Adults should spend more time listening to kids.
Too often decisions are made that impact the lives and futures of youth on a grand scale without taking the time to listen to their perspectives and insights. Young people are often overlooked as sources for viable information, even when they are closest to an issue. Their experiences, viewpoints, and ideas can always contribute to a greater understanding and set of solutions. And, bringing youth into the fold helps them develop as informed and confident problem solvers and leaders.
The Skillman Foundation has a long-held practice of having youth inform our work. Helping kids learn and lead starts with listening to the challenges they find most pressing, understanding the supports they find most helpful, and encouraging them to be part of the solution.
We want to expand these dialogues so that more people, and the city at-large, can engage in and benefit from them. It’s core to advancing an Opportunity Agenda for Detroit Children that seeks to ensure young Detroiters can benefit from and contribute to positive changes happening in the city.
Detroit has its share of exceptional individuals and organizations that value and champion youth voice. We gathered three of them to talk about their own journey to develop their voice as young people as well as their work to support the next generations in doing so.
Below are four key insights shared by Eric Thomas, storyteller and co-founder of SAGA Marketing; Alise Alousi, program director for Inside Out Literary Arts; and Branden Hunter, journalist with the Michigan Chronicle.
Youth Don’t Need Traditional Platforms to Be Heard – But They Do Help Validate
Young people don’t need traditional platforms or support from adults to express themselves, said Eric Thomas. With the help of social media, youth are connecting and communicating on a level never before possible. They are growing massive social networks, have high levels of connectivity, and express themselves via multiple mediums (e.g. text, photos, videos, etc.). Young people are incredibly savvy connectors and content authors.
These platforms and mediums offer avenues through which youth can share their truest self and realest opinions. And it’s not just in the online space. Music shows, poetry slams, and other arts and entertainment gatherings are still alive and well.
What organizations can offer is a sense of validation to young people’s message and an opportunity to share their voice with a more diverse audience. For example, inviting a young person to speak at a conference, write for a publication, interview for a news article, or perform at a community event are excellent ways to showcase and acknowledge the value of their perspectives and insights. While audience members gain an expanded view, youth gain expanded validation from reaching a different (likely older) audience.
“It’s important that young people have a community of mentors and peers that they can rely on,” said Alise Alousi. “That trust can help them get comfortable with sharing their experiences and views.”
Having youth work alongside someone who shares similar life experiences or are of the same gender, race, and/or ethnicity help youth envision a path to success. However, having a variety of mentors from different backgrounds also has benefits.
Branden Hunter shared that he grew as a journalist by reaching out to accomplished professionals in the field. Their guidance helped Branden forge his voice and plot the start of his career, while also gaining an understanding of his mentors’ different life experiences and paths.
Eric noted his own approach of creating a mosaic of mentors, learning from a variety of people based on aspects he finds inspiring.
Dig into Aspiration
We’re losing to rappers and celebrities. To get young people’s attention, we’ve got to dig into aspiration.
This was a remark from Eric, who suggested that kids would be much more compelled to study hard in school and set their ambitions to the professional workplace if they were shown the tangible benefits – the material rewards as well as the personal ones.
“Most kids see themselves as something greater than their current situation,” he said. But that line of sight is too often overrun with one-in-a-million talent like that of pro-athletes or happenstance luck and charisma like that of social media stars. It’s like the saying goes, to set a goal you must first see a goal. Cool clothes, nice cars, big houses, and rewarding relationships aren’t reserved for Instagram influencers. Let’s show young people what it looks like down the path of different professions.
Branden expanded the topic of aspiration further, raising the importance of covering positive stories and people making a difference, raising that young people can and should be engaged in this.
Prep Them, Respect Them
Groups working with youth must ensure the young people they are collaborating with are informed about the audience, the platform/event, and as many other details as possible, said Alise.
Be thoughtful about what young participants need to prepare themselves, including adequate time to prepare and/or execute. Last minute requests to write or speak – particularly on a specific/assigned topic – can be nerve-wracking for anyone, but especially for youth who haven’t yet gained the comfort of having a lot of previous experience.
Most of all, the aim of engaging young people should be to seek their views and to hear them express them in their own words.
Have questions about engaging youth voice? Further insights to add to this list? Share them below!
About the contributors:
Alise Alousi is program director of InsideOut Literary Arts, a nonprofit that helps Detroit youth develop as creative writers and spoken word artists. Previously, she was a writer-in-residence at Cody and Cass Tech High Schools where she cultivated student voice. Alousi is a celebrated Iraqi-American poet.
Branden Hunter is a journalist with The Michigan Chronicle. After graduating from Martin Luther King High School in Detroit, Hunter struggled with homelessness. He forged his own path as a self-taught journalist who focuses on stories about the people and communities of Detroit. Connect with Branden on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.
Eric Thomas is writer, speaker, entrepreneur and social media influencer. He is co-founder of Saga Marketing and had built a strong personal brand as an outspoken young Detroiter who is unafraid to broach difficult topics and current events. Connect with Eric Thomas on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.