The practice of embedding youth within organizations to guide and inform organizational policy and practice is increasingly common across sectors. Healthcare organizations, child welfare groups, public agencies, education systems, corporations, and research sectors are forming and implementing Youth Participatory Projects (YPPs), sometimes called youth advisory boards, councils, and coalitions. These organizations seek to promote youth participation and to create space for youth to effect positive change in their communities and society writ large. Our study seeks to contribute to the growing body of scholarship on planning, implementing, and evaluating YPPs and to holding youth-interfacing organizations to high standards of equity and youth-focused practice. Our research aims are as follows:
- Examining adult and organizational readiness across six YPPs.
- Identifying and consolidating best practices for youth-centric participatory projects that translate across five sectors: child welfare, education, healthcare, mental health, and juvenile justice.
- Developing phase-based recommendations for accessible and equitable YPPs.
Study findings are based on six distinct YPPs that the authors helped plan and facilitate across five sectors: child welfare, education, healthcare, mental health, and juvenile justice. These projects included a variety of youth engagement strategies including Youth Advisory Boards/Councils, Youth-led Coalitions and Youth Participatory Action Research projects. The researchers collected project documents, including facilitator planning notes, project logic models, youth engagement survey results, and transcripts from evaluation interviews and focus groups across the six projects. To answer research aims one and two, researchers employed thematic analysis of interview/focus group transcripts and compared themes to youth engagement survey results. To answer research aim three, researchers employed a content analysis of facilitator notes to uncover the most common parts of planning processes across sectors.
Analyses of project materials demonstrate that YPPs require robust and intentional planning to effectively engage youth. Organizations, and the adults within them, seeking to engage youth in YPPs must first critically examine their culture, practice, and policies to understand their current state of “youth-friendliness.” For example, organizations must consider that youth are more often available in the evening for meetings, compared to a traditional 9-5 workday schedule. Emergent best practices for youth-centric work across the sectors include: a dedicated point-person for youth, clear expectation-setting for youth around the scope of their work and the decision-making power they hold, flexibility in organizational expectations, and authentic opportunities for the youth to shape the organization. These best practices will inform the phase-based recommendations for accessible and equitable YPPs further discussed during the presentation.
Conclusions & Implications
As YPPs become more popular, it is pivotal for organizations to recognize the investment of time and resources needed to authentically engage youth and provide them with accessible and equitable opportunities. The lessons learned from these projects show that there is overlap across sectors, and developing robust best practices for engaging youth through advisory groups and other participatory projects can have far-reaching impacts. Social workers who are tasked with planning and implanting these YPPs can benefit from the translation of behind-the-scenes knowledge on these projects.