Youth Leadership, PreK-12

Principles of Youth Engagement

Written by Jordyn Roark, MSW, Director of Youth Leadership and Scholarship, SchoolHouse Connection

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I first became interested in the concept of ethical youth engagement during my own experiences working for organizations when I was an unaccompanied homeless youth. I spoke at conferences, wrote resources, and navigated media interviews as a college student with lived experience in various capacities and with various organizations. During this time, I began to note what organizations did well, as well as instances where I felt re-traumatized, or hurt.

I now have my Masters in Social Work and I am the Director of SchoolHouse Connection’s Youth Leadership and Scholarship program. In this role, I ensure that students around the country who have experienced homelessness are successful in moving to and through higher education. In addition to providing direct services, I also connect our scholars with youth engagement opportunities at the local, state, and national level. In this role and in my personal experience, I continue to learn about how we can best engage youth with lived experience.

This document is our effort to document what we have learned, but more importantly what our students have taught us about how to ethically and efficiently engage youth. It is a living document, because as with all of our work at SchoolHouse Connection, ethical youth engagement is a continuous learning process, and we learn and adapt as we go.

How to Ethically and Efficiently Engage Youth with Lived Experience in Education, Program Design, and Advocacy

1. Draft a Partnership Description. 

Prior to identifying and engaging youth partners, meet with your team to discuss and draft a description of the type of partnership your agency or organization is looking for. Consider these questions:

Once you have drafted your partnership description, provide it to current youth in your program or alumni of your program to review and provide feedback. Ask them if they think any word choices should be altered, if the description is engaging, if they anticipate any issues, etc.

2. Build Community Partnerships to Identify and Engage Youth Participants. 

Identifying youth who are willing and able to partner might be challenging, but engaging community partners and program participants can be a great way to start. Here are some key steps to begin to identify youth:

3. Build relationships and rapport. 

Immediately upon meeting a youth, begin building rapport by spending time getting to know the youth, providing information about the organization and yourself, and establishing a safe space. Relationship building can include actions like:

4. Make an effort to understand and value youth as individuals. 

Show that you understand that homelessness is a traumatic experience, not an identity.

“Sometimes a student may feel obligated to participate in events asked of them simply because resources were provided (such as any kind of support: financial, emotional, etc.) It’s important to make sure that students understand that you (or the organization you represent) won’t be upset with or disappointed in them if they don’t participate in these potential opportunities, and that they aren’t obligated to do so simply because resources were provided. Demonstrate that your relationship with them is important in and of itself, and not dependent on what the student has to offer you or the organization. You don’t want to make the student feel like you’re using them for your (or your organization’s) own gain, as it would risk any rapport built with the student, and dramatically alter the power balance of the relationship.”
– Irene
SHC Scholar

5. Provide Information Regularly and in a Timely Manner. 

It is critical that youth feel comfortable coming into our organizations ready to partner. In order to create a comfortable space, it is important to regularly communicate and provide ample information. For example:

6. Provide Support During In-Person Events. 

Ask youth ahead of time what will make them most comfortable during an in-person event and let them know you have the resources to make it happen.

7. Moderate Panels Intentionally. 

When moderating a panel of multiple youth or a panel where a young person is speaking alongside providers, it is critical that we intentionally manage our questions and that we provide space for all panelists to speak and participate.

8. Audience Boundaries and Q&A Times. 

When having a student or multiple students speak at an event, it is important that you as the provider help to set audience boundaries to protect the students. Examples of audience boundaries include:

9. Engage multiple youth over time to provide diverse perspectives. 

One youth’s experience and perspective cannot provide the sole perspective, or be generalized to represent a diverse population’s needs. Work to partner with multiple youth over time so that your organization can hear and learn from diverse perspectives. Tips for providing diverse youth perspectives include:

“To better understand the world around us, every student’s stories, experiences, and memories need to be heard when organizations partner with diverse youth. There is no singular background and you can’t assume all students have had the same experience. The collective stories of all students can aid the bigger picture.”
– Diego
SHC Scholar

10. Gather Feedback from the Youth to Inform Future Partnerships

At the conclusion of the youth’s contract/partnership, provide them with the opportunity to reflect on their experience and provide insight as to how processes can be improved for future partnerships. Be open to what they have to say and use it to guide your next youth partnership.

11. Engage Seasoned Youth Partners as Mentors/Peer Leaders. 

Another way to engage youth is through mentoring or leadership roles with new youth involved in your program.

“I’ve been a part of School House Connection since 2011, first as a scholar and now as a peer-mentor. The past ten years with this organization have been more rewarding and impactful than I ever could have imagined. Year after year I’ve had students confide in me and trust me with some of the most fragile and personal details of their life. In turn, I’ve been able to intact positive change and help them through some of these situations because they trusted me to do so. I believe the presence of peer mentors who have gone through similar experiences and who are close in age creates a sense of safety and unity and allows for a more open and welcoming atmosphere for students to truly open up.”
– Tia
SHC Scholar
“Peer leaders matter. We have shared lived experiences, and I’d trust a peer leader like a friend. I’m willing to trust and lean on them in a way that I wouldn’t with anyone else. Their recent experiences and willingness to support me makes me want to give back and do the same for other students.”
– Christian
SHC Scholar

Specific Partnership Examples