Back in 2002, I collaborated with United Way of America and co-authored Youth as Equal Partners which didn’t get much traction. Two decades later, there’s real reliance on young experts by the United Way of King County in Washington State.
This prioritization of BIPOC youth can be traced to some tenacious Gen Z leaders who know firsthand that their grassroots organizations cannot compete or survive with the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” For over a year, the King County Youth Commission identified how voices of the historically excluded continue to be “devalued, dismissed and disregarded” and demand “a paradigm shift to dismantle this system that is so exploitative.”
We are tired of fighting for representation. It should be a given that the most impacted members of our community be given access to opportunities that are not only compensated but have actual decision-making power.
Organization Seized the Opportunity to Collaborate with Youth
Typically young change makers guard their autonomy because they are distrustful and impatient with established institutions. In this case, these experienced young advocates are demanding systemic organizational transformation and fortunately, some equally committed staff at United Way share the same vision. An extensive 8-month research project by a team of young experts, who were paid about $25/hour by United Way’s Reconnecting Youth Initiative, generated Youth Tell All: Youth Centered Analysis on Youth Development in King County.
Urgent, unequivocal, and uncompromising is how I would describe the eloquent young researchers who presented straightforward recommendations based on their in-depth interviews with nearly 40 Black, brown, Indigenous, and queer youth.
Recommendation 1: Make young people integral to all decision-making, implementation, evaluation, and feedback processes.
Recommendation 2: It is vital to develop healthy and safe, as well as honest and consistent, relationships with young people.
Recommendation 3: Our decision-makers should represent our communities.
Recommendation 4: Build authentic relationships with our communities while centering the experiences of the people most affected.
Recommendation 5: Pay us for the ideas, time, labor, and leadership we contribute to your organization.
At this online presentation, the research team invited the executive director of the Seattle-based organization FEEST that lives by these five recommendations. High school students are involved at “a high level in strategic planning,” compensation is above $15/hour, and cardboard pizza has been replaced with nutritious Indigenous food in school cafeterias along with other significant wins.
Youth Tell All is not another report gathering dusk. This spring, United Way of King County will begin a youth-led participatory grant process where youth will directly decide $100,000 funding to youth-identified priorities.
When you work with young people, they provide feedback, and we realize they’re the product of the society we built. They have yet to be jaded and yet to be trained to mask what they’re feeling, so they are brutally honest. And when they’re brutally honest, they can call out where the discrepancies are in our work, so that we can listen to exactly where we need to and must make changes to better support youth.Ruel Olanday, Jr. with United Way of King County
Influence is Inadequate
Read Youth Tell All for a deeper understanding on how mainstream institutions, headed mostly by white adults, have the power to intentionally infuse young people into structures with real power to help produce lasting community change that benefits everyone.
“These recommendations mean nothing if they are not acted on. The power of this report is that we did the research for you. From our Methods, all the way to our Glossary, which even includes related readings for you to deepen your understanding, the data is there. We interviewed the youth, we read the countless studies supporting our findings, and the youth led this project from the start to the finish.
The only thing that is left to do:
- Pay the Youth who make it so your organization can thrive. This means Paying them with more than just experience, opportunities, or minimum wage.
- Give them decision-making power, not influence. This means making your decision-making processes so seamless that youth are already included from the start, and not when it’s time to “bring in the youth for feedback.”
- Ensure that your organization, from staff, to board, represents the communities you serve. Yes, this means hiring the same youth from your programs into these roles when they are ready! Yes, this means stepping down from a role that would best be served by a BIPOC community member.
- Mentor the Youth and develop safe, healthy, and honest relationships with them. This means giving them honest guidance, and not projecting your own trauma, or paternalistic feelings onto them and what you think they should be doing.
- Build authentic relationships with the communities you serve. This means all-year-round support, not just when your organization needs to check off a box for a grant deliverable.“
– Devan Rogers, Anti-Racist Community Organizer, and Abolitionist
More updates will follow here @ YouthInfusion.org on how United Way of King County is leading the way on authentic intergenerational interdependence to represent all constituencies in a county with over 2.25 million people.
Photo Credit: FEEST: Making Justice Irresistibly Delicious
- “Intergenerational’ Becoming More Widespread
- United Way of King County
- Youth Commission presentation of Youth Tell All report
- Youth Tell All: Youth Centered Analysis on Youth Development in King County report