Part of the opportunity and the challenge of working with youth councils (and youth generally) is that we adults come to the game with very good intentions, but too often with very stale models or without a clear vision of what we really want. We have what I call a massive “intentions-to-practice gap.” We assume that, because we were youth once, we must know what we are doing when it comes to working with youth. (This is a fallacy by the way.) We come without a true understanding of how to make a council successful and sustainable for our unique circumstances (i.e. our city, state, school, community, organization and youth). We come wanting to provide an opportunity for youth, but lack the understanding and skills to genuinely share our power with them. We come because we believe it is the “right thing to do” for our youth, but without articulating why it is the smart thing to do for our organization, city, state, school or otherwise. We just start a youth council – seems pretty simple.
This is why 3-4 years down the road so many groups get so frustrated when things are not working out like they had hoped. Maybe the youth stop coming. Maybe our initial diversity doesn’t seem so diverse anymore. Maybe it feels like the council is just meeting to be meeting. Maybe the adult who championed it is no longer around. Maybe our city or organizational leadership has moved on to other more pressing issues or ideas. Maybe our initial funding has run out.
Effective youth councils are far more complex than we typically prepare for. So, in order to help close the intentions-to-practice gap, and in order to provide better and more lasting opportunities for our young people and therefore more sustainable communities and a stronger democracy, I offer you the following considerations before you start a council or revamp your existing one:
- Do you have staff capacity not only to organize and run the logistics of a council but also to provide the necessary youth development to make it successful?
- Do you have the buy-in and broader awareness of why you have, or are creating, a council from other staff and partners outside of those directly supporting the council? In other words, is the council isolated or does it have broader access to support and engagement across departments, sectors, partnerships or other relevant areas?
- Does your council have adequate and sustainable financial investment? Does the investment match the expectations of the council? In other words, if you want deep youth engagement and input, have you invested adequately to build toward that? Or, have you just invested enough to have the youth come together once per month or so to eat pizza and have a meeting?Have you articulated why a youth council is critical to your work?
- Have you ensured that the council does not merely operate in parallel with your organization, but rather is a core strategy to achieve your collective mission and goals?
- If you want a racially, ethnically, economically, experientially diverse council, have you created recruitment strategies that will achieve this? Or, have you developed strategies that access youth via other programs or guidance offices that already have a certain level of access?
- Do you have the willingness and staff capacity to support the difficult yet critical conversations and youth development around diversity, equity, and access in a safe and supportive way?
- Have you considered multiple application criteria (written, interview, peer recommendation, adult recommendations) to ensure an equitable process for youth with varying experiences, skills, intellectual abilities and so forth?
- Have you planned for the transfer of knowledge and the continuity of leadership among the youth? Have you determined a process (particularly by year 2) for council members to serve as the primary recruiters, interviewers, and selection committee for new members?
- What kinds strategies (service, service-learning, advocacy, media/messaging, general communications, youth-led research etc.) is the council engaged in? How much flexibility do adults have when youth come up with new strategies?
- Do the activities of the council align with its strategies and with the strategies of the organization, school, city, etc.? Or, is the council running activities like proms, or talent shows, or community cleanups without any strategic relationship to their goals and to the goals of the organization or city?
- Is there consistency in the strategies and activities employed by the council such that the council understands and owns its roles and responsibilities? Or, does the council just operate at the whim and needs of the adults who may have a variety of needs at different times without a coherent vision of the role of youth or the council?
- What individual skills, teamwork, conflict management, communications and so forth are needed for the council to effectively employ the strategies and activities articulated above?
- How do you develop those skills with your youth based on your meeting schedule, the pressure of the deliverables of the council’s work, the diversity of your group, and the capacity of your staff to deliver on this sort of development (based on their own skill and other job commitments)?
- What is your plan for ensuring that council members entering with differing levels of experience and skill have equitable opportunities for development and leadership within the council?
- What kinds of decisions can the council make independently? What decisions require adult input? In what decisions, if any, do adults have the final say or veto power?
- Has all of the above been made clear and understood by all adults and youth involved in this collective work and decision-making? Is there some accountability structure in place to ensure these agreements are abided by?
- What is the process for decision-making? Which decisions require a formal process? Is it majority rule? Consensus? Does each member and each adult have the same voting power?
Consideration of these and other questions in your thinking around a youth council are critical if we are to close the intentions-to-practice gap. But, understand that you may not initially have all of the answers. This is not a prescription or a static plan. Over time, however, from the start of a council to a year-end reflection to a complete revamping after many years, addressing these issues and questions will help you ensure your best intentions are met with best practices.
Finally, we also must understand that the “youth council” is only one of many options for engaging young people in your work. If the council model does not match your core strategy or your staff capacity or you just don’t have the funding to do the quality work to answer these questions, that’s OK. Don’t start a council. Be creative. Use some of these and other criteria and questions to find something that will work for you that is strategic, sustainable, and meaningful youth engagement. This is the goal; the council is just one of practically infinite strategies for getting there.