Empowering Youth: Three Lessons

This post is the first of several addressing how to engage youth, a focus of Knight Foundation’s efforts to promote informed and engaged communities.

Knight Foundation recently gathered seven social entrepreneurs to see what they thought were the best ways to empower youth in their communities. Throughout the afternoon, they exchanged ideas about how to ensure young people have the self-permission, opportunity, information and resources to be change makers throughout their lives.

Together they drew a picture of the “Millennial” generation: a group raised on service-learning curriculums, who see the ability to give back to their community as a measure of their own success, and who in record droves are signing up for programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America.

And yet, the statistics also show a gap.’Often that energy, that desire to contribute or lead, is going unsupported and untapped, they said.’ Teens and young adults don’t always see a place for their voice and their work.’ They feel unwelcome, perhaps a result of negative messages about youth coming from adults and even the media.

The participants addressing these issues ranged from veterans of the juvenile justice system to others working with middle class college students.’ They included Michael Brown from City Year, Eric Dawson of Peace First, Maya Enista from, Christa Gannon of FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth), Suzanne McKechnie Klahr from BUILD, ‘Maurice Lim Miller of Family Independence Initiative,’Dorothy Stoneman from YouthBuild USA, and Diana Wells and Paula Recart of Ashoka.

Watch the session on video, see the transcript ‘ or read the three main takeaways on how we can all help empower youth:

Extend the Invitation

It sounds like a basic concept, but our society isn’t issuing the invitation to young people as a whole to encourage them to make a difference. ”We do a horrible job of calling our young people into our communities,’ said Eric Dawson, founder and President of Peace First, which aims to empower children to be problem-solvers and peace advocates. ‘We say we want them, but then we set meetings in the middle of the day, or halfway across the country.’ ”Couple that with the negative media messages and young adults often feel they aren’t capable to lead change, or won’t be listened to if they try.

People and groups should ensure that the messages they send ‘ intentionally and by virtue of practice ‘ are positive, relevant and compelling to youth. ‘BUILD, for example, is an organization focused on helping at-risk youth graduate from high school.’ However, it sees empowerment as a critical strategy in making that happen. ‘BUILD invites the young people to launch a business and then supports their progress. ”Offering youth a shot at being the CEO of their own company is much more compelling than an invitation to attend an after-school tutoring center,’ said BUILD founder and CEO Suzanne McKechnie Klahr. ‘Making things cool and making a new identity cool is very powerful.’

Ideas shared:

  • Encourage respect for young people’s opinions and ensure their perspectives are being heard and valued.
  • Employ storytelling of successful youth leadership to counteract negative messages about young people.
  • Invite youth to serve on the boards of directors of youth-oriented nonprofits.’ Foundations that invest in youth-centered projects should do the same.

Build Young People’s Sense of Self-Efficacy and Empowerment

Youth need experiences that allow them to be powerful in a positive way. ‘A large part of that is the opportunity to try out new identities. That means taking them out of their usual surroundings and networks and letting them experiment.

Christa Gannon is the founder and Executive Director of FLY (Fresh Lifelines for Youth), an organization that works to give a second chance to youth formerly in the juvenile justice system. ‘At first, FLY worked with a large group of young people from the same community, but made little progress. So they started bringing together youth from a variety of different neighborhoods. Once they were in a new environment and could experiment with their new roles, with new people in a safe space, the youth could take action and ‘go back to their communities and create a snowball effect’, Gannon says.

Ideas shared:

  • Connect youth-serving programs and organizations so that young people can find a range of options.
  • Get young people’s input from the beginning of a project or initiative rather than a token sign-off at the end.
  • Create spaces where youth can find the love, respect and encouragement they sometimes lack in their communities.’ ‘Once they find the thing that gives them what they need ‘ the safety, the respect, the opportunity, the skills, the family, the love, the role in the community where they’re the heroes and not the hoodlums ‘ then all their peers want to follow them,’ shared Dorothy Stoneman, founder and President of Youth Build USA, which engages low-income youth to rebuild their communities and their lives.

Shift the Way Adults Perceive Youth and their Abilities

One of the biggest barriers to youth empowerment is what Stoneman calls “Adultism.” Based on fear, it’s an attitude that implies that adults know better than young people, one that sees youth as problems or subjects to help rather than capable, empowered individuals.’ The cycle replicates itself generation after generation, she said. Take, for example, the recent debate over school reform that she said involves very little input from students. ”We could come up with a million instances where young people have no voice on the things that determine their existence,’ Stoneman said.

Ideas shared:

  • Challenge instances of ‘adultism’ when you see them.’ Advocate for youth as powerful and positive members of communities.
  • Create awards for ‘fearless’ adults who actually give more power to young people over decisions, Ashoka U.S. Director Paula Recart suggested.’ ‘There are young people out there that are engaged and willing to act as problem solvers, what we need are more adults giving them space and opportunity,’ Recart said.

Tomorrow, we’ll post short interviews with each of the social entrepreneurs answering one question: In your perspective, what is the most important element to engaging youth today?

We’d love to hear your thoughts, too, on what we can all do to empower youth as change makers.