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Intergenerational Reciprocity

How often does the CEO and Co-Founder boast that his position stated on his employment contract is Executive Assistant to Generation Z?

How often does the CEO boast that his position stated on his employment contract is Executive Assistant to Generation Z? Josh Thompson of Civics Unplugged is unequivocal about his subordinate role in this youth-serving organization. 

Here are some revealing highlights from Baratunde’s How To Citizen podcast with Executive Assistant Thompson and 17-year-old Civics Unplugged Steering Committee member Zoë Jenkins. This interview shows how adults with impressive credentials in education, law, business, etc. truly toss the reins to their younger colleagues. This unusual power shift results in dynamic intergenerational reciprocity.

  • ENGAGE IN RADICAL COLLEGIALITY: “There’s lots of wisdom. [Josh and other] Administrative Assistants give a lot of feedback, advice and help. All the Co-Founders are mentors but we also are just friends. Young people get to have that relationship where you rely on them and they rely on you. It’s been a really transformational experience.” – Zoë
  • REVERSE ROLES: “Other civic engagement work is kid-light advisory. We are kid-heavy. They cannot flip the switch and make that culture change organizationally overnight.” – Josh 
  • BELIEVE THERE’S NO MINIMUM AGE FOR IDEATION: “We don’t want to be treated like we are 30 because we’re not 30 but to be given the same value for our opinions and what we know. Obviously we don’t have the same wisdom as someone who has lived much longer but our ideas do not have less merit. It just means we may need more support from intergenerational partners to operationalize those ideas.” – Zoë
  • DEBATE BRAVELY: “[My] role at Civics Unplugged is to pick fights with the kids that I consistently lose. It’s one of the funnest things but that dialogue is super important. The launch of Civics 2030 was my first fight and made me roll my eyes. I’ve been in politics, government and public service and how many superintendents put out a 3-year strategy or 5-year turnaround plan. Here we go recreating a generation that ends up with a whitepaper on the shelf and get dusty…Nope, this is an actionable 10-year plan.”  – Josh
  • OVERCOME ‘MINOR’ OBSTACLES: “The real beauty of Josh and the rest of others Co-Founders is they have a lot of value but a huge value is they are over the age of 18 and they can sign contracts for us.” – Zoë
  • FIND THE MONEY: “Other nonprofits and political campaigns wanted access to our kids [Fellows]. They want them to be interns to run product, social media campaign, think about how to engage youth but that’s a leadership position not an internship. But [they say] we don’t have the budget and so we [Civics Unplugged] will chip in…We are investing capital directly into these projects.” – Josh 

Let us know how this multi-racial intergenerational organization inspires you. Contact us for details about our workshops and consulting on how to begin the pursuing systemic change at your organization.

P.S. Nominate high school students or encourage them to apply to the Civics Unplugged 2021 Fellowship @ https://www.civicsunplugged.org/apply

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Does Your Youth Program Transact or Transform?

Transformational or transactional youth activities
Are your youth activities transformational or transactional?

When was the last time you thought about WHY young people come to your youth program or classroom?

  • Do they come to get jobs, earn money, and in order to become gainfully employed?
  • Are there rewards for attendance or contests for participating?
  • Are youth punished in some way for not attending?

These are traits of a transactional youth activity.

  • Do youth see their capacity to create, build, change, and make the life they want to live as the most important reason for coming?
  • Are adults seeking to learn with youth or take action together for change?
  • Can young people choose whether or not they want to be there and adapt for changing times?

This is a transformational program.

Transactional Youth Activities

A lot of youth programs in general are built on transactional relationships based in giving and receiving, i.e. “I give you this and you get that.” Forming the premise for much of our economy, this type of relationship is evident in…

  • Many schools where students earn grades by performing certain tasks;
  • Stores where youth pay money for food, clothes, music and more;
  • Friendships that are reliant on trading attention when needed.

A lot of youth involvement, youth voice, and youth engagement activities are transactional relationships where young people become involved because they can get a reward for being there. This might be a grade, kuddos from adults, or a bullet point on their resume.

Transactional youth activities have several elements. They…

  • Focus on extrinsic motivation
  • Appear practical
  • Resist change
  • Discourage independent youth actions, thinking and reactions
  • Reward performance
  • Constrain thinking
  • Rely on passive youth voice
  • Deliver directive youth activities
  • Emphasize formal structure
  • Focus youth on their own self-interest and reassure adults’ self-interest

They are also common, and easily compared to other youth-serving activities. Sometimes these relationships are necessary, especially at the outset of a youth activity. However, the challenge is that many adults believe this is the only way to involve young people.

Transformational Youth Activities

Alternatively, Youth Infusion insists that youth and adults join in together because each age group changes because of the interaction. These transformational relationships allow everyone the room they need in order to be whole, become engaged, and make a difference in their own lives as well as the lives of the people around them.

Transformational youth programs have many elements. They…

  • Check adultism
  • Are clearly co-led with youth and adults
  • Encourage healthy risk-taking
  • Engage youth in difficult decision-making
  • Share organizational consciousness between youth and adults
  • Inspire and foster new thinking
  • Adapt, pivot and respond
  • Are proactive
  • Are visionary

Transformational youth activities are unfortunately rare throughout the youth service sector, and throughout education. Throughout their processes, they are revelatory, teaching youth and adults new things while expanding the impact each has on the other and on themselves. By their nature, transformational youth activities are creative, necessitating unique, divergent, and eclectic thinking, actions, and outcomes. Because of this, they are also particularly lifting to those who are involved.

Is your program transactional or transformational? Are you ready for transformation? It’s exciting, rewarding and enlivening to be engaged in transformational work, but can be frustrating to change from one style to the next. It can also be necessary to focus on basic human needs and interact in a transactional way with youth, at least for a period of time.

If you’re ready to explore whether your youth activity, youth program, youth organization or K-12 school can move from transactional to transformational approaches, we want to help. Contact us to learn more about Youth Infusion right now »

Youth on Governing Boards

The pinnacle of power often centers on a nonprofit’s Board of Directors. The data show that only 21.4 percent of these key governing roles are held by people of color–not much change from the BoardSource’s survey way back in 1994. A commitment to representation that reflects our increasingly younger and more diverse population is one of the transformative shifts needed to replace White Supremacy.

Anecdotal evidence reveals that young people who serve on boards contribute in significant ways such as strategic planning and also change the culture. The CEO of one environmental education nonprofit claims the high school students, who are treated as equals on the Board, often surpass the adults in their serious attention to the Board of Directors handbook, their careful analysis of budgets along with penetrating questions. Another executive director credits young people not only making Board meetings more fun but causing older members to follow through. If you’re interested, you can learn more about youth as board members from the Freechild Institute »

One student position on a local school board remains an anomaly. Even then, these high school reps have only an advisory role. It took 38 years to get legislation through the Maryland Statehouse to allow the Student Member of the Montgomery County Board of Education to be able to vote on the hiring of the Superintendent, capital and operating budgets, collective bargaining, school closings, COVID re-openings, and boundaries. Montgomery County is the 16th largest school district in the country. It seems totally out of whack that the primary stakeholders–those in the classroom–are outnumbered. Imagine if AARP had eight trustees under 25 and only one over age 50.

“Students are the most valuable and least consulted education policy experts in America.”

Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World

But most adults would not agree with Ripley as explained in typically colorful language by my colleague, Adam to Education Week last year: 

“Some adults talk to me about the inmates running the asylum. It’s this fear, this concern that kids don’t know what’s best for themselves, and as adults we have the best experience and knowledge.”

Adam Fletcher, June 11, 2019

Minors and young adults serving as reps or directors signal an institutional shift that has the potential to accelerate the snail’s pace of achieving diversity on nonprofit boards. 

P.S. To build a truly multi-racial intergenerational organization, youth also need to be involved not on a monthly or quarterly basis but interacting regularly with staff, otherwise known as Youth Infusion.

Do you agree with Adam about “the inmates”? We are eager to hear your reactions – please share them in the comments section!

That Certain Something

One assumption behind youth infusion is the belief that deliberately, strategically, systemically, sustainably, and powerfully weaving youth throughout organizations will lead to less exclusive, more popular, and more common experiences of youth engagement for every youth in every community, all of the time.

One assumption behind youth infusion is the belief that deliberately, strategically, systemically, sustainably, and powerfully weaving youth throughout organizations will lead to less exclusive, more popular, and more common experiences of youth engagement for every youth in every community, all of the time. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the norm. Instead, a lot of programs are missing that certain something that makes youth infusion different.

Many youth engagement opportunities are based on establishing an ambiguous set of experiences for a certain number of young people to achieve particular outcomes according to the will of adults. Unfortunately, these approaches can result in inequitable, unsustainable and sometimes imperceivable changes in organizations. Worst still, they can feel unjust, unequal, and ill-considered by the very youth who sought to become involved.

Through youth infusion, we’re proposing that organizations can go further with intention. Some of these intentions include:

  • Transform Traits: The innate values, ideas, beliefs and opinions of the people involved including youth and adults
  • Sharpen Skills: The actionable, practical abilities that young people and adults need in order to work together to change the world
  • Capture Knowledge: The concepts, strategies, facts, and other thinking accumulated and created by the people involved in youth infusion
  • Accentuate Actions: These are the tangible steps young people and adults take to make a difference in their own lives, communities and beyond

Once organizations, programs, projects and communities state their intentions in these areas, they separate themselves from typical youth engagement, traditional youth involvement, and stagnate youth voice. Instead, they step forward and make a conscientious choice to transform the world through transformative action with young people.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Infuse ‘Y’ in DEI

It’s time to embed young people in these organizations to actually increase diversity, to actually practice inclusion and the most challenging, to actually share power to achieve equity.

The National Council of Nonprofits drives home the question: “Does your nonprofit create opportunities to listen to the voices directly from community, grassroots, or young leaders in low-income, under-served and/or marginalized populations within its community?” The answer often falls to a vice-president or team charged with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Apart from token engagement, youth-serving institutions do not practice what they preach given the exclusion of this entire age group. 

It’s time to embed young people in these organizations to actually increase diversity, to actually practice inclusion and the most challenging, to actually share power to achieve equity. This is distinct from a youth advisory committee or an internship program. As we all know, it is an unfair burden and an impossible task to ask a few young people to represent their generation—the most diverse in history.

Expanding DEI

  • Diversity – representing many young people of color and multiple identities
  • Equity – redistributing power and engaging in real shared decision-making
  • Inclusion – respecting a broad range of perspectives by youth of many racial and socio-economic backgrounds

This process of infusing the ‘Y’ in DEI does not and should never happen overnight. Serious organizational commitment to create an intergenerational culture by senior staff and the board is a prerequisite. Just as those in charge of DEI trainings for the entire staff—especially to address systemic racism—workshops also need to pull back the curtain and interrupt individual and institutional biases about youth as well as confront adultist attitudes.

Youth don’t have the academic or professional credentials but by virtue of their station in life and firsthand knowledge about their peers, rarely are young people privy to the circle of strategizing and decision making. Equitable inclusion of diverse youth seems only just. In fact, ‘justice’ is being added to DEI which, as Richard Leong with Act to Change suggests, could translate into a more catchy acronym: JEDI.

What do you think about incorporating both the ‘J’ and ‘Y’ in DEI? Please reach out to us to learn more.

Graphic: League of Women Voters of Delaware

Self-Care for Youth & Adult Allies

Whether you are younger or older, here are some points you can learn to help with your self-care.

If you are engaging in youth infusion during the pandemic, you might be affected by online activities differently than other people in your family or organization, including other youth and adults, too!

Youth and adult allies need to take care of their mental health, social health, emotional health and physical health. Since people involved in youth infusion can feel more responsibility than many others, we need to be intentional about taking care of ourselves.

Whether you are younger or older, here are some points you can learn to help with your self-care.

1. Watch Your Thinking

Online activities can be isolating for everyone, and being apart from youth and adults can be hard. Adults—including youth workers, teachers, nonprofit leaders and others—should reinforce to young people that they need to maintain their friendships and other relationships. We should do that too! It is actually an important way to develop and build lifelong communication skills, and can also make stressful situations a little more bearable.

Youth and adults should learn together to…

  • Listen to your self-talk. You should give yourself credit for building youth infusion and not be too self-critical
  • Keep things in perspective, try not to gossip, get the facts, and assume the best intent when possible
  • Acknowledge to themselves and others when things are weird, whether during the pandemic or otherwise
  • Remember changing to online activities can be hard work for yourself, and remember that nobody should be expected to get everything right
  • Its essential to take breaks when needed

2. Keep In Touch

Youth infusion can be hard on emotional and mental health, especially when we’re working online! It is common for both youth and adults to feel more depressed or anxious during conference calls, video trainings, or other online activities, especially during the pandemic. Many people are still figuring out how to adjust to programs, learning and activities that requires so much self-motivation. This can make young people and adults feel guilty or stressed for not infusing youth enough into their organizations, movements or lives. 

Adults and youth should learn together that…

  • Communication and collaboration makes the distance feel less distant between partners, including young people and older people
  • It’s important for youth and adults to take time to do things with people other than youth infusion activities. They should know that living youth infusion all the time can make it hard to separate from non-infused life from the rest of life
  • Many young people and adults are dealing with similar hard things in online activities, and they aren’t alone

3. You’re Not Alone

It can be boring and feel repetitive to be on the computer for every interaction with youth and adults. Learning we’re not alone, even if we’re one our own at home during the day, is important for youth infusion.

Youth and adults should learn to…

  • Talk to other people—including other students and adults—about what they’re struggling with and how they are taking action
  • Find hobbies, ways to relax, and healthy places to process difficult feelings brought on by youth infusion, whether online or in-person
  • Be encouraged to focus on the positives as much as possible

4. Move Your Body

Sitting in front of a screen all day is hard on your eyes and your whole body. Feeling responsible for youth infusion can add to those difficulties. Remember that, even though young people and adults are exercising our minds throughout the day, our bodies needs care too. In addition to helping with learning, moving can help with mental and emotional challenges too. Things like stress and depression can affect the body in physical ways too.

Youth and adults should learn to…

  • Stretch, take walks and breaks, and get outside if they can
  • Pay attention to posture and go easy on their backs
  • Keep a routine with things like food, sleep, etc.
  • Exercise to release toxic thoughts and stress, whether its simple or complicated activity


These are just a few thoughts about what young people and adults should learn about self-care. What would YOU add?

Internships v. Youth Infusion

Instead of one lone intern, the new model is a cohort of young people embedded in a community-based organization, advocacy group, coalition, foundation, or government agencies.

Service-learning as been the dominant civic engagement opportunity for the last two decades. Student volunteers may move from a potentially seminal experience such as helping at a women’s shelter and then analyze the root cause. Rarely, though, is there a pathway for these passionate Gen Zers to deepen their involvement and pursue remedies.

  • Internships adhere to a one-sided model where the intern gains valuable skills, perhaps plans a conference or writes a report, and then exits after a few months. 
  • One reason why internships rarely evolve into youth infusion is the organization does not have stated commitment to graduate to a new level of intergenerational teamwork. 

Instead of one lone intern, the new model is a cohort of young people embedded in a community-based organization, advocacy group, coalition, foundation, or government agencies. Serious preparation for all involved is essential. Many young people will walk into an adult-run organization full of apprehension and awkwardness when interacting with people typically viewed as authority figures, who either have had the final say or fail to pay attention to their ideas. 

Many adults, who frequently do not interact with the very people their organization serves, will revert to roles as parents, teachers or mentors which reinforce the habits and stereotypes that aggravate the generation gap. Adult attitudes are shifting, recognizing that young people have a lot to offer now–not just in the future. 

As a young person, I am very excited about the world, my future and the endless possibilities both offer. I want to make a positive difference. The adults I am drawn to are those who have not completely forgotten their adolescence and its open-mindedness. They believe in me and my abilities and encourage me to attain my goals. Some adults surprise and inspire me.” 

Think back to when you were a young adult. Did you feel intimidated or distrustful of those over 30? How would you try to welcome young colleagues—rather than interns–into your organization?

Lower Voting Age to 16

Extending suffrage to minors will signal a major shift in how local elected officials pay attention to demands and dreams of “kids.”

A broad community coalition in San Francisco had the audacity to try again to extend voting rights to minors. The Vote16 ballot measure in the 16th largest US city, earned more than 205,000 votes but finished at 49.2%, just short of the 50% threshold needed to pass. This Charter Amendment won 30,000 more total votes and a higher percentage than the first try in 2016.

The shift is coming in how local elected officials pay attention to demands and dreams of “kids.” What does it say the the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Board of Education members agreed unanimously to put this measure on the ballot? I still am as optimistic about Vote16 campaigns across the country and abroad since my TEDTalk. The testimony by two San Francisco teens still sticks with me: 

As a child of an incarcerated adult, my dad doesn’t have the right to vote…I would love to vote on issues that affect my family.

I’m art of the one-third of SF immigrant community, I’m the only one in my household who can have a potential vote.

In neighboring Oakland, a ballot measure to extend voting rights to 16- and 17-years olds for all Board of Education candidates won by a whopping 67 percent. As this coalition website exclaims:

Thanks to the amazing leadership of students across Oakland, youth have won the right to vote in School Board elections!! Thank you to all of you who supported the young people’s movement to center youth power and strengthen democracy!

Extending suffrage to minors will have a ripple effect. Not only will elected officials have reason to listen and respond to this new constituency, but this new found respect will spill over to community leaders, government agencies, etc. which will set in motion more acceptance of youth infusion. Neuroscientific research confirms brain circuitry necessary for cold cognition is mature by mid-adolescence and 16-year-olds are just as capable as adults at “making informed and reasonable political decisions.” 

Similar Vote16 campaigns are underway across the cities across the country.

If you have the opportunity to vote for a similar proposal where you live, please share whether you would vote yea or nay!

Student Election Poll Workers

More than half the states have lowered the age to 16 for poll workers. Opening up these paid positions certainly signals an attitudinal shift.

November 3, 2020 is guaranteed to be a historic election. COVID has thrown a wrench into the entire system of voting. Even prior to the pandemic, election officials foresaw a crisis. Staffing polling sites has been increasingly difficult and now an estimated 250K workers are needed. The shortage is predictable with 60% who are 61 or older. One solution gaining traction is to widen the pipeline by relying on those not yet old enough to vote. 

More than half the states–34–have lowered the age to 16 for poll workers. Opening up these paid positions certainly signals an attitudinal shift. Teens can be trusted for this serious work as election judges. Most states pay minimum wage to cover hours spent for both prior training and election day. Bottom line: demographics demand it. 

It is not only the graying of America that necessitates engaging high school students but their digital skills fill a real need at polling stations. This trend is an example of multigenerational collaboration but if state and county board of election officials applied our Youth Infusion process, this opportunity to participate in our democracy could be dramatically different by intentionally engaging the most marginalized and underrepresented. 

NOW IMAGINE REAL YOUTH INPUT

Let’s imagine how a group of young consultants could have contributed if they had been involved at the very start in weighing numerous decisions that could result in a broader pool of student poll workers who could have this rare civic leadership experience. A few hypothetical examples: 

  1. Eligibility requirements range from 2.5 GPA, 3.0 in other states, to “exemplary academic standing.” Would these grades deny too many deserving students this opportunity?
  2. High School Poll Worker recruitment flyer details about time commitment and compensation. Would youth emphasize other information and pick other photos?
  3. Application questions like Utah’s include “Are you comfortable working with electronic equipment and entering voter information on a tablet/computer?” Would they reword this requirement?

In this case, young people can be enlisted to flag and circumvent potential barriers that could prevent their peers from applying, for example, having to print out the document and have postage stamps. In addition to inside knowledge of Generation Z, collaborating with a cohort of teens begins to pull down the wall of age segregation. We envision structural organizational change where boards of elections would intentionally recruit young people to expand those involved on the frontlines not only on Nov 3rd but every election day.

What’s your reaction about this trend of trusting teens with this responsibility? We are eager to hear your opinion!

How Old is Youth Infusion?

It still doesn’t seem radical for youth-serving organizations to involve the very people they serve in decisions from setting priorities, designing programs, evaluating services to pursuing systems change.

Nearly 20 years ago, I coined the term Youth Infusion. This concept emerged at a retreat organized by the Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development at the National 4-H Center.

Back then and even now it does not seem radical for youth-serving organizations to involve the very people they serve in decisions from setting priorities, designing programs, evaluating services to pursuing systems change.

My idealism endures. One reason for optimism is senior level professionals at youth-serving organizations recognize another special level of power among the rising generation. Their influence and impact challenges the primary rationale of intergenerational engagement that is only anchored to positive youth development (PYD).

Could it be that adults and organizations also benefit from sustained collaboration with Generation Z? 

This 2002 conference that remains a vivid memory produced Youth in Decision-Making: A Study on the Impacts of Youth on Adults and Organizations which spells out four key advantages for Youth Infusion.

  1. Adults experienced the competence of youth first-hand, and began to perceive young people as legitimate, crucial contributors to organizational decision-making processes.
  2. Working with youth served to enhance the commitment and energy of adults to the organization.
  3. Adults felt more effective and more confident in working with and relating to youth.
  4. Adults came to understand the needs and concerns of youth, and became more attuned to programming issues, making them more likely to reach outside the organization to share their knowledge and insights. They gained a stronger sense of community connectedness.

Which advantages stand out to you? What other benefits would you add? Share your thoughts in the comments!