Youth Councils: Finding the Right Fit
“The more we increase the active participation and partnership with young people, the better we serve them… And the more comprehensively we work with them as service partners, the more we increase our public value to the entire community.” – Carmen Martinez, United States Diplomat
As a new school year approaches, I am reminded of my high school years, filled with friends, lots of homework, my extra curricular activities and of course, the often student-dreaded 40 hours of volunteering. I wasn’t always interested in being the best student academically, but you could usually find me doing something around the school campus. From Drama Council and Athletic Council, to managing the boys basketball team, playing flag football, running track and being a part of the peer relations team, I was always doing something that kept me engaged at school and with my community.
Ever since I can remember, I have been involved in my community. Community-engagement builds character, gives young people skills that aren’t always taught in academic school classes and helps to provide youth with a better understanding of what we might be passionate about. By the time I graduated high school, I’d accumulated over 3000 hours of volunteer work!
I know that it is often difficult for organizations that work with youth to keep young people interested and engaged. One way that many organizations have succeeded in keeping youth engaged is by creating youth councils. A youth council is a forum where young people are able to make decisions on issues that affect them.
“I learned the things I believe actually have value and that other people can relate to that as well.” – YouthREX Youth Advisory Council Member
We spoke to the members of the YouthREX Youth Advisory Council (YAC) to find out what it was like being a part of YAC, and asked them what advice they would give to other youth and organizations that are interested in creating youth leadership and engagement opportunities.
All of the responses below are from our YAC council members unless otherwise noted.
1. What was the experience of being on YouthREX’s Youth Advisory Council like? What helped to make the experience noteworthy?
“I met great people and built relationships. It helped me with my teamwork and with leadership. Doing the documentary, I gained valuable experience, travelling to different areas of Ontario. To be honest, one of the things that was really noteworthy was the documentary itself. It made everything worth it.”
“I didn’t know what to expect coming in. I remember meeting people from very different walks of life and I also felt, in the beginning, very intimidated, sitting in a boardroom-style room. But I think that this was very rewarding in many ways, because I often had a lot of doubts about if we would get to the finish line, so for myself it was about the fact that we were able to work together to complete [the documentary] and make it a reality.”
2. During your time on the council, did you learn anything about yourself that was surprising?
“I think it was a good learning experience. It was a year-long commitment, so I had to learn how to balance between being involved in YAC and all that came with it, as well as everything I was doing outside.”
“I think what I learned was leading and being a facilitator.”
“I learned so much, I had no idea about many of the issues affecting youth in Ontario, issues for example, like pollution. My view of youth and their potential and capacity has expanded so much. I’ve seen so many things that youth have done and are doing and are capable of, it was really enlightening.”
3. Based on your experience, do you have suggestions for YouthREX or for organizations starting a Youth Council?
“I think in the beginning I was unclear on the roles of the various people, like the coordinator role and the co-chair role. I think being able to understand that would have made things better.”
“It started off really slow, and that was a bit frustrating because it was hard to see the end of the project and what we were going to do at the beginning.”
“Going forward for the next council have more engagement with staff; have more come to the council meetings.”
4. What advice would you give to organizations that are interested in creating spaces for youth leadership?
“I would say talk to the youth. Ask them what their opinion is, what they like, how they prefer programming to be run, allow them to be part of creating the program so that they have a connection to it. I think that’s the biggest thing, just listening to them; and be very careful about not tokenizing them. A lot of times organizations have one representative of youth on the board and that one person has to represent all youth.”
5. What do you feel the role of an adult ally is and how did this play out in the process of the documentary?
“The first rule of an ally is to listen, and the second is to learn. And I think it’s important to be there, but not to take up too much space. That can actually be really hard because sometimes people have the best intentions but it’s damaging when they become the voice of that group even though they’re not apart of it. It just shows that even if you want to help, you can sometimes do more harm.”
According to Foster Youth in Action, an ally is someone who believes in youth empowerment, supports the work that the youth are doing and will take the steps needed to help the youth to be successful. In a youth program an ally is a staff member or volunteer who is committed to helping the youth truly engage and become empowered in a project or organization.
We checked in with Alexander Lovell, YouthREX Director of Research and Evaluation and YAC adult ally, a few questions in order to get his perspective on youth leadership and engagement:
1. It is often hard to find youth who are able to commit for long periods of time. What do you feel the role of an adult ally is and how did this play out in the process of the documentary?
“The council members were very engaged throughout their term despite the term being longer than expected and involving an ambitious group project. I think the level of interest resulted from the recruitment process. We put out a call for youth with an interest in research and/or youth wellbeing issues to apply for the council. This led to a committed group of people who never had a problem connecting their personal and career interests with the work they were doing as members of the YouthREX YAC.”
2. What advice would you give to organizations that are interested in creating a youth council?
“My advice is to communicate clearly during the recruitment phase when and where members of the council will have a voice at decision-making tables internally and/or externally…
It’s also important to allow people to utilize their competencies and skills. I suggest including an asset mapping/values activity during the first phase of the council and use this to encourage everyone to draw on their skills and expertise for their work with the council, while also learning new skills along the way.”
Whether you’re an adult ally looking for ways to empower youth or an organization interested in implementing a youth advisory council, I think the main focus should be on ensuring youth are at the forefront, allowing them the space to make decisions and having their voices heard.
If you’re a young person looking to complete your 40 hours of volunteering or a youth who has a passion for creating a better community for yourself and your peers, its important to figure out what you’re passionate about. Knowing this will help you to align with the right organizations or programs. Here are a couple resources to help you with this!