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  • Writer's pictureallisonjolester

Bridging the Gap: Shifting Adult Mindsets to Empower Young Voices

Hello, fellow practitioners and researchers!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my journey through the worlds of education, research, and community engagement, it’s that young people are ready to change the world—they just need us adults to get out of their way. Easier said than done, right? But let me tell you, the rewards are immense when we collaborate with young people. Let’s dive into how we can make that shift.

The Mindset Shift: From Guardians to Guides

Picture this: You’re in a room full of educators and community leaders, all nodding sagely about the importance of youth engagement. Yet, when it comes to actually implementing youth-led initiatives, there's a collective hesitation. Why? Because letting go of control is hard. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Spotting the Problem:

  • Control Freak Alert: Do you often find yourself micromanaging projects that involve young people? Are you anxious about letting them take the lead?

  • Tokenism Trap: Are young people only involved in superficial roles without real decision-making power?

  • Fear of Failure: Are you worried that if young people take charge, things might not go as planned?

Shifting the Mindset:

  • Embrace Vulnerability: Are you comfortable admitting when you don’t have all the answers? How can you better appreciate the fresh perspectives young people bring? Are you truly valuing their local knowledge and experiences?

  • Seek Feedback Actively: How often do you ask young people for their feedback? Do you make it a regular practice to understand their needs and show that you value their input?

  • Reflect and Adjust: Are you regularly reflecting on your own practices? Are you genuinely empowering young people, or are there ways you might be holding back their potential?

Strategies to Start Doing (Small Steps to Big Change)

1. Start with Listening: Before you jump into action, create spaces for young people to share their ideas and concerns. Listening is the foundation of collaboration. At one point during my tenure at a community-based organization, we conducted empathy interviews with teens. It was eye-opening to hear their perspectives, unfiltered and raw. Need some tips? Check out my posts on methods and strategies that help foster listening and engagement.

2. Create Safe Spaces: Young people need environments where they feel safe to express themselves without fear of judgment. During my graduate studies, I dove deep into the literature on the holding environment framework, which emphasizes creating supportive spaces that nurture growth and learning. This concept is essential for fostering trust and openness in any youth-centered initiative.

Here are some questions to consider when creating a safe space using the holding environment framework:

  • Is the space physically and emotionally safe? Ensure the environment is free from threats and allows for open, honest expression.

  • Does the space promote inclusivity? Think about how to make the environment welcoming to all, regardless of background or identity.

  • Are there opportunities for collaboration and ownership? Allow young people to have a say in the design and use of the space, fostering a sense of belonging and responsibility.

  • How is feedback incorporated? Create mechanisms for continuous input from young people to adapt and improve the space as needed.

3. Small Steps, Big Impact: Start with small, manageable projects that allow young people to lead. At an educational nonprofit I worked with, we piloted a paid Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) internship. Teens were given a $10,000 budget to research community needs and implement solutions. The results? Incredible. They developed The Garage, which became a vibrant community hub. Check out my post on this project!

4. Model the Behavior: One of the best ways to show your commitment to youth voices is by actively modeling the behavior you want to see. Start by aligning your actions with your organization’s values. If you’re want to amplify youth voice, make sure your actions reflect that goal.

Instead of just talking about collaboration and inclusion, use methods that allow everyone to see youth voice in action. For example, implement Group Level Assessments (GLAs) in your projects. This method involves young people in the evaluation process, making their contributions visible and central to the outcome.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post where I'll break down how to use Group Level Assessments in your organization and practice!

5. Reflect and Iterate: Encourage a culture of continuous improvement. Use reflective practices to regularly assess and adjust your approaches. Here’s how you can make the process of reflection and iteration a regular (and dare I say, fun) part of your practice:

Step 1: Hold a Reflection Party

  • Invite Your Inner Critic: Yes, we all have one, and it’s time to make friends with it. Gather your team (and some snacks) for a regular reflection session. Make it a point to look at what’s working, what’s not, and what just plain needs to go to allow you to invite more youth voice in!

  • The Rose, Thorn, Bud Method: This is a simple but effective reflective practice. Ask everyone to share one thing they enjoyed (the rose), one challenge they faced (the thorn), and one new idea they’re excited about (the bud). This process opens up the floor for honest feedback while identifying actionable steps, and I highly encourage you try it with the young people in your organization!

Step 2: Implement Iteration Stations

  • Set Up Feedback Stations: Think of these as pit stops in your project. Set up points where feedback is collected and reviewed. This could be after a major event, halfway through a project, or whenever you feel things might be getting off track.

  • Embrace the Failures: Every iteration won’t be perfect. In fact, if everything’s going smoothly, you’re probably missing something. Create a safe space for acknowledging and learning from mistakes.

Step 3: Keep the Momentum Going

  • Regular Check-Ins: Think of these like the maintenance checks for your car. Regular, small tune-ups prevent big breakdowns. Schedule brief, consistent check-ins with your team to ensure everyone’s on the same page and any small issues can be addressed before they become big problems.

  • Celebrate the Wins (Big and Small): Whether it’s successfully navigating a tricky group discussion or simply keeping the office plants alive, celebrate it! Acknowledging progress keeps the energy up and motivates everyone to keep iterating.

Getting Started: Practical Tips

1. Start Small: Identify one area where you can involve young people in decision-making. It could be as simple as planning an event or giving feedback on a project.

2. Build Trust: Establish trust by being transparent and consistent. Young people need to know that their voices are valued and respected.

3. Seek Feedback: Create regular opportunities for young people to provide feedback on your efforts. This could be through surveys, focus groups, or informal check-ins.

4. Provide Training: Offer training sessions on leadership, communication, and project management to equip young people with the skills they need to succeed.

5. Celebrate Success: Publicly acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of young people.

Embrace the Change

Shifting adult mindsets to truly incorporate and collaborate with young people isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. By starting small, building trust, and continuously reflecting on our practices, we can create environments where young people are active leaders in driving community change.

So, let’s commit to asking ourselves that simple, powerful question: “What do you think?” and be ready to act on the answers we receive. The future is bright, and it’s in the hands of our young people.

Until next time, keep asking, keep listening, and keep believing in the power of young voices.


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