Youth as Leaders in Their Lives

By: Willow Wheelock, Advocate, WomenSafe in Middlebury, Vermont

Youth experience and have to navigate many of the same circumstances that adults do: drug use and addictions, sexual assault or harassment, oppression (sexism, homophobia, racism, classism etc), abuse, control and/or violence in their dating relationships, abuse of power by others, alcoholism and more.  And while many youth may have access to programs or supports for these issues, rarely are there real opportunities for youth to take the lead in working towards social change; instead, youth are ‘clients’ in adult-driven programs aimed to address, end or offer healing from the circumstances they experience. This is important, but it is also equally (or more) important that youth are engaged as leaders and organizers for systemic, social change.

There are five stages on the youth engagement continuum that move adults’ work with youth from intervention to systemic change.

  1. The first stage is youth services, which defines young people as clients who have no input into program decision making and addresses problems on an individual basis.
  2. The second stage, youth development meets youth where they are at and supports partnerships between youth and adults where youth provide input into program decision making. It builds young people’s individual competency and provides opportunities for growth and development.
  3. Youth leadership deepens young people’s historical and cultural understanding of their experiences and community issues. It also increases the capacity for youth to be decision makers and problem solvers by building youth leadership opportunities and increasing their participation in community projects.
  4. Civic engagement engages young people in political education and awareness and helps them to build a collective identity of themselves as social change agents. It also engages them in advocacy and builds their capacity for analyzing power and acting on issues important to them.
  5. Lastly, youth organizing involves youth as a core part of staff and the governing bodies; it builds a membership base of youth that engage in alliances and coalitions, direct action and political mobilizing.

This is a continuum of youth engagement that ranges from intervention to organizing. Creating authentic opportunities for youth to participate on the higher end of the spectrum is important work that recognizes their capacity for critical thinking and as effective change-makers in their community and the world. Given all the trials and tribulations youth will experience that closely mirror the experiences of adults, it is only appropriate (and empowering) that they be given the same opportunities to make their world a safer, more just, equitable place.