What is Effective Youth Engagement?

The art and practice of youth engagement

We need to work together as cities, counties, schools, and districts…we need young people to see that civic engagement and elections are a priority.  – Jesse Salinas, Assessor / Clerk-Recorder / Chief Election Official, Yolo County

Any local government considering a youth engagement strategy should have a clear plan for what level of engagement is desired and required to manage expectations of both the agency and the youth.

Sociologist Roger Hart crafted “Hart’s Ladder,” pictured below, which demonstrates youth participation as a continuum.

Researcher Harry Shier expanded upon Hart’s model to demonstrate the role of power sharing in this dynamic.

Recommendations for Youth Engagement Strategies

The following are recommendations for local agencies that want to establish an effective youth engagement strategy.  The guidance is built upon Youth Power’s model for civic participation.  Learn more about Hart’s Ladder, Harry Shier’s model, and the recommendations for local agencies via Youth Power.

  • Set goals, identify target audiences, clarify expectations, and outline desired outcomes.
  • Identify and connect with key stakeholders, including community based organizations, internal and external partners, facilitators and local youth experts.
  • Identify existing an future barriers to youth civic participation and how they will be addressed – or – leveraged.
  • Identify civic knowledge and skills to be developed in a project or activity.
  • Create a plan to motivate youth to participate. How will you ensure participation consistently?
  • Assess the civic knowledge and skills of the youth participants throughout or at the end of a project to determine success or impacts and identify the most critical strategies that supported those outcomes.
  • Be mindful, respectful and care for young people as vulnerable and impressionable participants.  Do not harm young people through processes or outcomes that will cause additional burdens to them or the community.
  • Engage youth in designing a program before you begin an activity or finalizing a project scope so that they can influence the process.
  • Make sure that the process used to outreach to and gain youth participation  is inclusive, equitable and representative of the community.  Ensure that the spectrum of youth participants have a diverse perspective on the dynamics of the community landscape and that the demographics are reflective of the city/county/special district?
  • Educate and clarify consistently. Explain, answer questions, and engage in conversation about process so that youth are aware of the approach to be taken and the opportunities for refinement. Remember that learning new things and ways of doing things takes time for youth and adults.
  • Set reasonable expectations, goals and timelines to ensure youth are not overloaded or disappointed in the process or outcomes.

Positive Youth Development

Incorporating Positive Youth Development (PYD) features into any youth engagement activities can strengthen process and relationships among youth and adults.  What is Positive Youth Development? Youth Power defines it as:

Positive youth development engages youth along with their families, communities, and/or governments so that youth are empowered to reach their full potential. PYD approaches build skills, assets, and competencies; foster healthy relationships; strengthen the environment; and transform systems.

Positive Youth Development is a holistic approach to engaging young people.

Learn more about Positive Youth Development at Youth Power

A note about ethics and responsibility of effective youth engagement

As agencies begin to implement programs that connect young people to workforce experiences and engage them in civic life, it is important that local agency leaders consider the short and long term goals of the project and what it means the young people, not just the agency. For youth that have endured hardships it is important to be consistent and communicate clearly about what happens next or how they will be involved moving forward.