People often ask me why I joined Plan International USA (Plan).
There were many aspects about Plan that I found very appealing, not the least of which is its historical roots in the Spanish Civil War, a country and a conflict that meant a lot to me personally. But what sealed the deal for me was Plan’s commitment to engaging children and youth in every aspect of our organization. As a children’s rights organization I found the commitment to ensuring the voice of children and youth were at the front and center of every aspect of program design and execution, as well as organization governance, to be both powerful and unique.
Once I started as CEO & President of Plan, I discovered the Youth Advisory Board (YAB). The YAB was created in 2010, the year I started at Plan. Its genesis was a group of young people (on average, ages 14-19, but we have had both slightly younger and older members) who engaged directly with us in the development of programs and activities that our organization supported in the U.S. and overseas. Do not let the word “board” fool you. This was not a group of young people “overseeing” activities from a distance. This was a group closely working with our youth engagement team in actual project design and execution, including an annual one week youth summit focused on youth advocacy.
This group started small, a few youths who used to meet at the Plan office in Rhode Island once a month on Sundays. At their own initiative, they developed a mission, a name, a strategy, and started doing small youth-led actions to raise awareness about global issues in their communities. Their efforts expanded to their schools, where they started organizing and a network of youth clubs formed in the region. Because they wanted to convene all the clubs once a year, they organized a Youth Leadership Summit with help from our staff. That’s how the annual advocacy event got started. By 2015 the group that had started small in Rhode Island had grown and its members came from all across the U.S.
About two years into my tenure, the YAB proposed the idea of having a youth representative on our board of directors. I had gotten to know the YAB members and had a great deal of respect for this dedicated group of young people. They took their engagement with Plan very seriously; they dedicated a lot of their “free” time to understanding the issues and our organization’s approach to programming, governance and advocacy. In addition, they enthusiastically led major initiatives like the youth leadership summit. Needless to say, I loved the idea of having the YAB become a feeder to our board. Not only would it provide needed diversity of perspectives and experiences to a board which otherwise was relatively homogenous age-wise (mostly people in their 60’s), it would provide the strongest signal possible of our commitment to walk all that talk of including youth voices at Plan.
But getting this to happen required a bit of homework.
First, there were legal issues. Our by-laws stated that board members had to be at least 21 years of age. This requirement had to do more with the organization’s Directors and Officers (also known as D&O) insurance, a liability coverage organizations carry for their boards and officers than any specific “ageist” biases. Changing by-laws in an organization can be a time-consuming process. We would have wanted youth board members to be younger but the YAB agreed we could live with 21.
Next, we had to consider how to respond to board member concerns about the capacity of the youth member. Concerns centered on whether this young person could be an effective contributor – would he or she understand what was being discussed, what Plan programming was about, the financial and policy issues? Initially, I was dismissive of these questions. I thought they reflected ingrained adult biases, e.g. how could a young person know as much as any adult did about Plan (or about anything)? Moreover, these YAB members had years of experience working with Plan staff on program initiatives. They arguably knew more about Plan than many board members who were much newer to the organization. Of course they were ready!
But I came to understand that these concerns signaled the need to do more work with our adult board members to get them ready. If we wanted our board to realize the full benefit of having a young person as a member, our adult members had to be prepared to make space for this different perspective. It meant having our youth engagement staff work with our board on how to effectively engage youth in the board dialogue, and be mindful of “adultism” – all those prejudices and biases adults carry that almost reflexively cause us to dismiss the ideas and thoughts of young people, or at best give the ideas and views of adults way more weight than those of young people.
Our first youth board member was elected in 2015. Plan has had a young person as a full board member since this time. Because of this, I believe our board, and therefore our organization, is the better.
Youth don’t just show up at an organization and fit in. At Plan it happens because we have been intentional about it, because it is part of a broader strategy for integrating youth in a meaningful way into every aspect of our work. We have invested in the systems, policies, and training to facilitate this. We have a pipeline of youth engaged with Plan at different levels. There is a ladder of engagement with substantive, increasing responsibility, and opportunities to lead. These range from advocacy initiatives, the YAB, the leadership academy, to the full board.
There are a lot of organizations that talk about the need to give a voice to children and youth - those their organization is trying to benefit. That voice is not ours to give. I am proud to belong to an organization that seeks to ensure youth take their rightful place at the center of all we do.
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