Youth in Day-to-Day Operations

These public health professionals respected and relied on the wisdom of teens. They knew firsthand the unique influence and power of youth not only with their peers but parents, policymakers, politicians, and the press.

“I don’t interact with youth much at all.”

This is a common refrain we hear from seasoned professionals and veteran advocates, especially those who concentrate on issues that directly impact children and adolescents.

Imagine an organization where the primary stakeholders join the adults in day-to-day operations. It has happened!

Youth Impact on Organizational Culture

In the case of one high impact nonprofit, more than half the paid staff were under 18. The staff ratio: usually hovering around 10 adults to 25 teen employees, most from historically marginalized communities.  Youth staff were not relegated to limited roles but infused in all aspects of this nonprofit:

  • researching issue areas;
  • helping conceptualize and write grant proposals;
  • developing advocacy strategies for local or statewide initiatives;
  • creating social media campaigns;
  • leading process to recruit, interview and hire new youth; and
  • participating in interviews for prospective adult staff.

In the main office of Youth Empowered Solutions! (YES!) in Raleigh, North Carolina, I saw worn bean bag chairs, unframed posters, and other evidence where young staff ‘lived’ several days a week after school.

During my roundtable discussion, the lively atmosphere and banter contrasted with the thousands of meetings I’ve experienced. I felt like the adult staff at YES! were imbued with dare I say… JOY.

My experience and intuition would lead me to conclude this job satisfaction and spirit are linked to their close collaboration with their young colleagues. This mindset is described by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas:

 “We discovered that every one of our geezers who continues to play a leadership role has one quality of overriding importance: neoteny. Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy…Neoteny is a metaphor for the quality-the gift-that keeps the fortunate of whatever age focused on all the marvelous undiscovered things to come.”

Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (2002)

The co-founders of this nonprofit had extensive experience collaborating closely with teens, notably fighting Big Tobacco in North Carolina–the top state producer of this lethal product.

These public health professionals respected and relied on the wisdom of teens. They knew firsthand the unique influence and power of youth not only with their peers but parents, policymakers, politicians, and the press. 

Organization Outcomes

Over the past decade, Youth Empowered Solutions! has employed more than 100 young people from all across North Carolina, and empowered thousands of youth from 25 states. This intergenerational advocacy engine is credited with changing hundreds of policies and systems to address racial inequities and adolescent health disparities ranging from food deserts to dental care. As co-founder Katie Spears Warner describes:

The role of young people contributed to a more cohesive team, reduced burnout and attrition among adult staff. There was this sense of family and belonging and we were dedicated to the work and to one another. When you are supporting the growth and development of young people, while also committing to the humanity of people and racial equity-the experience is nurturing and healing in many ways.

I would make the assumption that is why many of the YES! founding adult staff stay for a decade and the youth staff stay connected well beyond high school years, through college or the workforce and into their adult livesoftentimes still connecting today to their former Adult Leads.
 

Now YES! has evolved into YES! for Equity and officially is operating as part of the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity. Learn more about this exciting organizational development from my long-term colleague Katie Warner (KWarner@psequity.org). 

Our workshop teaches the essential skills for adults to adapt to this new power dynamic which includes making it the norm to interact with the rising generation. For more details, please contact us!

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