To Engage Teens, Give Them Real Voice in Decision Making

Despite growing national interest in increasing out-of-school-time opportunities for high school aged students, many programs for older youth struggle to attract and retain youth.

Research shows that programs that successfully support older youth intentionally create opportunities for youth voice, engagement and leadership at multiple levels. They reflect teens’ increased needs for efficacy, responsibility and agency, and actively engage them in organizational and community leadership.

Teens are not only attracted to programs and events that tap their interests and passions, they are drawn to places that they themselves help to create. Youth become deeply engaged and invested when they share in program, organizational and governance decision-making. It helps them develop a real stake in the organization, one which has tremendous power for the youth, the adults that serve them, and the organization and the community at-large.

One successful way some organizations and schools engage youth as leaders is through a teen advisory council (TAC) model. At Neutral Zone, our TAC makes the final decisions about which programs to offer and whether they deserve funding. The TAC is an official board committee, and its leaders are voting members of the board of directors.

Our TAC also raises its own funds and directly supports five to eight teen-led projects each year, such as paying for a visiting poet, funding a camping retreat, or purchasing a new piece of equipment for the recording studio.

At the program level, teens should share in the planning and running of their own initiatives.  This opportunity requires resources and time to support effectively. Teens must be trained to serve as facilitators, learning to develop a meeting agenda, run a successful meeting, ask guiding questions and use active strategies to keep a meeting interesting. All of this must happen in partnership with adult advisors who work closely with teen facilitators, scaffolding them to plan and run meetings, and helping them to navigate organizational issues when they arise.

Teens also deserve a seat at the highest levels of governance. Nearly half of the members of our board of directors are teens nominated by their peers. They are full voting members and sit on every board committee, from human resources and finance to fund development. They help cultivate major donors and plan programs. They do things that adults might normally be reluctant to let teens do, including hiring the leader of the organization, approving a budget or discussing sensitive staffing issues.

There are many benefits to having youth on a nonprofit board. It provides them valuable competencies and experiences, contributing to their development of 21st century skills and civic engagement. And it provides youth an amazing opportunity to build their social capital. Serving with bankers, lawyers, architects, artistic directors and college faculty exposes teens to a wide range of people and perspectives that they can and should tap, just like other community volunteers who serve on boards.

Having youth on the board strengthens the organization. Involving the very people who the organization serves and including their perspectives on important decisions strengthens an organization’s mission and programs.

Finally, having youth on the board is good for adults. Adults don’t get enough opportunities to see how amazing young people are and how many have a plethora of brilliant ideas, good values and strong work ethic.

Adults’ commitment to youth development should include having the courage to let teens run the show. We have to give them important jobs, challenge them to make big decisions and help them learn from mistakes. When teens “help run the store” they develop 21st century skills and gain critical social-emotional competencies. Moreover, adult staff and volunteers experience greater satisfaction working with youth who have higher levels of engagement and motivation.

Most important, communities benefit by building a civil society whose youth are civically engaged and prepared to be active participants in a democratic society.

By John Weiss

Photo by tastygoldfish


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