Since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, people in the U.S. have been amazed, horrified and filled with hope by the #NeverAgain movement led by students. Young people are advocating for change and asking for a seat at the table, leaving many adults unsure how to react. When young people engage with politicians and media, should they be treated as adults or is there a different set of rules? If the current public debate regarding Parkland survivor David Hogg and media personality Laura Ingraham is any indication, we have work to do in order to meaningfully engage young people.
Though I fall into the category of adults filled with hope by young people in the U.S. who are organizing for change, I empathize with adults who are in shock as young people mobilize and clap back at adults in power. One of the reasons I wanted to work for Plan International USA was because youth engagement is part of the organization’s DNA. Not only was I excited to mobilize support for young people in countries where Plan implements programs, I looked forward to working with Plan’s U.S.-based Youth Advisory Board (YAB). I had visions of creating fundraising campaigns that our YAB would carry out into their networks, and the adults would sit back and count the likes, retweets and money. I’m embarrassed to say that I defined youth engagement as young people being ambassadors of the organization, as opposed to active participants in its vision, strategy and programming.
Even though Plan’s approach is to work with young people to implement the changes they want to see in their communities, I didn’t know how to put the practices that work so well in the field to work in our marketing and communications activities. And, like many Americans now, even though I wanted to hear what young people said, I wasn’t sure what to do when they said something I did not like. Thanks to my colleagues, I learned quickly that real youth engagement isn’t pushing out a social media campaign because “kids are good at social media.” Nor is it bringing a young person from El Salvador or Kenya to give a speech about how Plan changed her life to a room full of supporters — or planning a week of activities for International Day of the Girl and asking who wants to represent the organization in a tokenistic event or photo opportunity.
Meaningful youth engagement is an ongoing process that starts with the principle that young people have a right to give input on community decisions that impact their lives. If we believe that young people should be informed on and engaged in important issues, we also need to believe that young people bring expertise that adults may not have, and we need to respect their opinions and create space for them to share their perspectives. But, creating space does not immediately translate to meaningful engagement.
As it turned out, I was not the only one at Plan struggling with how to meaningfully engage young people in the work of the organization. At the time I joined Plan, the organization was taking a big step in walking the talk of youth engagement by adding a young person to our board of directors. Some board members were thrilled to offer the opportunity of participating in organizational governance to someone from our YAB; others weren’t sure how someone without many years of experience in senior professional roles could contribute to the governance of a complicated global international development organization. The early result of these mixed views was an awkward on-boarding where we toggled between treating our youth board member like someone’s child doing a class project, versus a responsible adult with informed opinions and perspectives. Over time and with guidance, staff and board members came to value a young person’s input, particularly as it became apparent that being young didn’t translate to inexperience. Ironically, our first youth board member had worked with Plan since she was 12 years old, giving her eight more years of experience than some staff and other board members.
My own journey engaging young people can be summed up in one word: humbling. As I let go of control and invited young people to participate in strategies, campaigns and even corporate partnership meetings, I could see how resourceful, motivated and impressive they are. I also learned that their own stories were more powerful than my version of their story. In a recent meeting with an important corporate partner, two members of Plan’s YAB presented their own market research and ideas. Their insights and ideas added another level of depth to the conversation, and our partner wanted to hear more from them, not Plan staff. I have more to learn about youth engagement, but I have yet to have an experience where it wasn’t worth the effort.
The #NeverAgain movement will not be the last time we hear from young people. More than one-third of the world’s population is under the age of 25 and we can’t ignore their perspective. At Plan, we believe that young people have the right to be heard by institutions, business, government and civil society. We also know that the capacity to provide meaningful ways to hear from young people and act on their feedback is not native in most organizations. To engage young people, it takes significant resources and time. While the learning curve — combined with the important need to ensure proper protections for young people — can be daunting for the institutions where youth could have the most impact, young people today are living different lives than you or I led at their ages, and we cannot continue to speak for them. We believe the next generation is #YoungAndPowerful and we will always strive to do the sometimes difficult, but always rewarding, work of engaging young people.
Will you join us?