5 steps every organization can take to involve youth leaders

December 5, 2022
By Laura Brazee
December 5, 2022

As the development community doubles down on a journey to shift power away from colonialist systems and into the hands of marginalized communities, it’s important that young people are also involved in defining what new systems, structures and ways of working look like.

At Plan International, our five-year strategy seeks to ensure everything we do is youth-centered and youth-led. We are committing to leading the way by co-creating our programming and influencing work with young people. The goal is that young people, their organizations and young staff will have greater power in meaningful decision-making across the organization.

However, to shift power effectively, we need to hear what is working well and what is not from young people. That’s why we invested in an impact study to evaluate 15 years of our domestic youth leadership programming, to find out how well it has served young people and if it’s had a positive impact on helping them affect change in their communities.

Young people told us loud and clear what’s working well with Plan’s youth engagement and leadership approaches, and what else they need in order to take up the space they deserve in systems and communities that are aspiring to evolve, albeit slowly. Here are the top five findings from our review:

1. Young people need space to practice their leadership skills in environments where they are valued, trusted and viewed as essential stakeholders. Young people told us that Plan excels at building critical skills such as how to synthesize information, effectively communicate, speak publicly and facilitate groups. What they said was most effective was not just learning the skills, but practicing them over and over again in a safe space where they felt supported and believed in, as well as where their voice and opinions matter.

Tip: Youth leadership programs should offer young people the opportunity to practice their leadership skills over the course of several months with the support of a peer network and dedicated staff.

"My leadership skills were developed through Plan. I also learned how to facilitate groups of people with differing opinions to come to a common consensus. I use these skills almost daily." — Youth participant

Young people at Plan’s Youth Leadership Academy work on a brainstorming exercise together.
Young people at Plan’s Youth Leadership Academy work on a brainstorming exercise together.

2. Build empowerment by treating young people like equals. Recognize that young people have valuable lived experiences, and create space for them to bring their ideas and solutions to the table. This validates their contributions and builds their self-confidence to speak out, share their ideas and influence decision-makers in adult-led spaces that are often intimidating and exclusive.

Tip: Create space for young people to lead and show them how you’re incorporating their ideas into your work through feedback loops. Then, give seats in decision-making spaces to young people in your network.

"I feel that [Plan] really treated us like equals and just having this community of adults treat this big community of youth like that really empowered us to feel that yes, we’re just as smart as adults and we can do all the stuff they’re doing.” — Youth participant

3. Cover a variety of topics impacting young people globally. Young people noted that their increased global awareness was of the most notable elements of Plan’s program. They want to learn more about complex global issues, inequalities and injustices, and feel this content filled a gap in their U.S.-centric high school curricula. Young people shared that increasing global awareness and interaction with youth from all over the world had a profound impact on their ability to empathize and taught them greater patience, curiosity, empathy and compassion.

Tip: Work to ensure your curriculum is not solely looking at global issues from a U.S. perspective. Bring in youth voices from around the world and create opportunities for young people to learn from, and collaborate with, young people from other countries.

4. Mentorship needs thematic alignment. Small group mentorship with the guidance of an experienced mentor proved to be helpful and motivating; however, matching needs to be intentional. Young people found their mentors and peer groups to be most effective when they were interested in similar social justice issues and themes.

Tip: Engage mentors that can help open doors for young people and bring them into spaces where youth voices and perspectives are lacking.

5. Create a structure for supporting non-dominant groups of young people to excel outside the safe space of the program. One of the most important pieces of learning from our impact study was that young people of color felt they needed more robust support from Plan when leaving the safety of our program and going out into their communities to influence and effect change.

Tip: Develop a process, plan and budget, in collaboration with young people of color, to offer additional support as they work to influence and implement change in their communities. 

"I think there is a little bit of a dangerous idea of, ‘Okay, you’ve done these amazing things within the support system. Now go into the world by yourself and do something amazing.’ It’s a really high expectation [as a BIPOC woman]. Plan ended up being this safe space for me." — Youth participant

Power shifting is a slow process. Our efforts to influence this change need to focus both on carving out space for young people in decision-making spaces and, at the same time, delivering programs that offer supportive, safe environments, where young people can practice, lead and influence with a community of allies that truly believes in their ability to take on power. As we all keep learning and adapting our youth development approaches, we’d love to know what you’re hearing from young people on how to better support their engagement in decision-making spaces.