Youth engagement is about empowering all young people to address and make decisions about issues that affect them personally and/or that they believe to be important. To create these opportunities, it is essential we understand that the program is less about us providing an activity for them and more about young people providing a critical perspective for us. Youth engagement programs should be about recognizing youth as equal partners contributing to the organization’s mission.
At National Parks of Boston (NPB), our Guiding Principles ensure that youth programs are meaningful and beneficial:
Think of youth as a community asset – value their perspective and input.
Commit to participatory leadership – provide opportunities for young people to grow into leadership roles. For example, rather than an adult facilitator making decisions allow someone eager to step into a leadership role to solve the problem.
Build authentic relationships – prioritize open communication and honesty.
Meet youth where they are – have high expectations grounded in flexibility and support youth to achieve what’s important to them with an individual plan.
Put youth and their safety first! This is a biggie. The youth should feel heard and know their input is utilized at the organization. Foster a safe environment as an adult by being their advocates and helping them to speak up when they don’t feel comfortable.
Four years ago, I started Historias de Boston (HDB), a youth employment and development program that focuses on sights, sounds and stories of Boston’s diverse communities and history. Youth learn to use video and audio production tools and techniques with an emphasis on digital storytelling and historical research of the parks. Through hands-on assignments, they research, produce, capture and edit projects based in and around the National Parks of Boston, ultimately producing a mini documentary focused in and around the national parks and communities of Boston. Here are some of the 2020 Historias de Boston videos. Historias de Boston is ultimately about connecting with parks, either through resources, experiences or lessons learned during the program. The benefits are mutual: HDB has helped the NPB see where there are holes in our stories and which stories need development to make them accessible and interesting to young people.
Historias de Boston is ultimately about connecting with parks, either through resources, experiences or lessons learned during the program.
As you consider adding youth programming at your organization, keep in mind the following questions:
What level of engagement is possible within your organization (needs, capacity)?
What is the best way of facilitating engagement (time commitment, location, opportunity type)?
What strategies can you implement to elevate current engagement (continual evaluation and growth as young people change)?
Building a youth engagement program takes time and gets better with youth feedback—so do not forget to ask for it! I have enjoyed seeing HDB develop over the years and have learned so much. I could not have done it alone. To close, here are what I found to be valuable resources: