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!

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