Methods: YWL was established with youth voice at the center of its development. From the outset, community-based youth advisors were recruited to ensure youth voices would be central to the growth of the organization. Acting as a separate entity that was linked to but not governed by the YWL, the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) was founded by five youth, each of whom are racialized, have lived experience, and are not directly affiliated with the University of Toronto but who were enrolled as students in fields related to social services and/or youth work. Over time, youth advisors indicated a desire to further engage in research and expand their roles beyond that of "advisor." As such, the Youth Researcher Program was created. Each member’s scope of practice expanded to include research engagement in projects curated to address youth-identified areas of importance.
Results: To date, 100% of founding youth members have remained with the YWL, and 80% have retained their position as youth researchers. Additionally, two more youth members have been recruited and have indicated a desire to become Youth Researchers through a process articulated by the YAC. All youth members are directly involved in YWL’s inaugural research project, The Real TO, an 8-week Instagram Live speaker series designed to explore the potential of co-created spaces for youth to host conversations important to them, including leading conversations in almost 40% of episodes, with the remaining 60% led by other community-based youth. Of particular interest is anecdotal data shared by youth researchers indicating that by establishing partnerships with academic institutions that increase access and place importance on lived experience, youth can feel empowered through collaboration with other young people of colour who are also passionate about social justice.
Conclusions and Implications: The Youth Researcher Program tests a new approach to traditional research by building capacity for youth to be meaningful partners rather than passive observers in research. This program has the capacity to create alternative pathways for youth seeking professional experience and mentorship, or for youth who want to engage in research knowledge creation but are not yet connected to post-secondary institutions through respectful and authentic mentorship, and encourages pathways otherwise not considered or deemed unattainable (e.g., graduate or doctoral programs). By expanding youth voice in research, youth can recognize the value of their voices and lived experiences.