Bob Atkins, PhD, RN, FAAN, Director, New Jersey Health Initiatives, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Associate Professor, Rutgers University.
Dan Hart, PhD, Professor and Director of Institute for Effective Education, Rutgers University
You are most likely reading this article because you care about innovative approaches to building healthier and more equitable communities. You probably know that, while youth are important stakeholders in every community, their voices are often absent from conversations on how to build healthier communities. Alternatively, you may have decided to read this article because you are interested in learning about innovative approaches to increasing youth voice in communities.
Warning: We will not highlight youth councils, listening tours, poetry slams or other innovations designed to “amplify youth voice.” Amplifying youth voice is not a bad thing but youth have far more to offer communities than their voices. With the right supports (e.g., good youth groups, connections to the community) youth can engage in real world experiences that contribute to health in their communities in the present and develop the civic habits and leadership skills necessary to become future leaders. Providing youth with these experiences will make their communities healthier today and tomorrow.
As you read about our experiences and think about how you might support initiatives in the distressed communities you serve, we want you to keep in mind:
- In many distressed communities more than one-third of the population is under the age of 18.
- Youth who engage in community service projects are more likely than their peers to volunteer and engage civically.
- Youth from distressed communities, who are overwhelmingly black and brown, have fewer opportunities in their schools and communities to engage in leadership and service projects.
Next Generation Community Leaders
The most innovative and sustainable solutions to upstream health challenges in communities such as increasing food security, access to parks and playgrounds, and the number of safe and affordable housing units are found when those most affected, community residents, participate in the conversation on developing and implementing solutions. Unfortunately, the proportion of residents participating in civic and political life is shrinking as fewer adults are voting, volunteering, and joining civic organizations.
One way to tackle today’s upstream health challenges and create tomorrow’s civically-engaged residents is to make youth part of the solution. That’s what we did in New Jersey through the statewide funding initiative, Next Generation Community Leaders (NGCL). This $2.8 million program was funded by New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI), the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Ten community-based youth serving organizations (e.g., Boys & Girls Club, 4-H) in New Jersey received grants and technical support from the Institute for Effective Education at Rutgers University-Camden to engage youth as partners and future leaders. Each grantee organization created and supported two teams in 2017 and 2018 consisting of 10-15 youth who developed a project over the course of a year to improve health outcomes in their city. The grantee youth serving organizations were required to use grant funds to compensate youth at minimum wage or more for their work.
In addition to compensation, the youth received coaching in areas of teamwork, communication skills, and leadership training. In addition, the youth met with community leaders, elected officials, and community-based organizations to better understand the health challenges in their communities. With the support and guidance of adult coaches and leaders, the youth developed and implemented projects that addressed a challenge to health and health equity in their communities (see NGCL projects described on NJHI website). The projects ranged from addressing school absenteeism in Newark to improving food security among older adults in Atlantic City. As we discuss below, youth became employees of the grantee youth serving organization and implemented the projects they developed as their summer employment.
The independent evaluation of the NGCL program by a team of researchers at Rutgers University indicated that there are good reasons to believe that investing resources in developing the civic habits and leadership skills of youth between the ages of 14 and 21 years of age will prepare them to be the kinds of citizens our communities and democracy need to thrive. As we discuss in this piece there are not enough of these opportunities, especially in distressed, urban communities where there are high concentrations of youth and relatively few youth-serving organizations.
Civic habits and leadership that contribute to healthier communities and a stronger democracy are developed through real world experience (Hart and Youniss, 2018). Now is the time to create real world experiences that energize the civic development of young people and contribute to healthier and more equitable communities. Below we briefly discuss five principles for sustainable, effective youth engagement grounded in research and practice. Our principles draw from academic theory, (Hart and Atkins, 2011; Larson, 2000) as well as from our experiences developing and implementing the NGCL initiative in New Jersey.
Five Principles for Effectively Engaging Youth
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No skimming off the top. High-achieving youth are often overrepresented among youth leadership programs and, especially in distressed communities, the highest achieving youth (e.g., class president, member of National Honor Society, etc.) are more likely than their lower achieving peers to have educational and employment opportunities that decrease the likelihood they will stay in the community (Kress, 2006). We wanted to ensure that the youth-serving organizations funded through NGCL invested resources in developing the civic habits and leadership skills of all youth in the community, including “out of school youth” and non-college bound students who were more likely to stay in the community. These youth will soon be the adults who vote in elections, serve on school boards, run for city council, and serve as coaches for youth programs.
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Make youth equal partners. Many adults who work with youth in groups are not typically accustomed to engaging with youth as partners and rely on adult-focused scripts, where youth sit and listen, and adults make decisions. While this approach can be useful for delivering content, it is not effective as a means to increase leadership skills or inspire habits of engagement. Adult leaders and coaches should be trained in a manner that demonstrates and models a commitment to multi-directional conversations that value youth participation. Of course, another way to value youth participation is to, whenever possible, compensate youth for their work. This is especially important for youth living in low-income households who hold jobs. The compensation makes it possible for them to participate. Youth serving organizations funded through NGCL were required to compensate youth for all of the time they spent developing and implementing their projects, which were implemented for one month of the summer.
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Connect youth to community leaders. In all of the NGCL projects, youth formed relationships with community leaders (e.g., elected officials, nonprofit leaders, police chiefs) who, along with their coaches, provided information on challenges in the community as well as assets that could be tapped to address those challenges. These connections did not only benefit the youth. Through conversations with community leaders, we learned that they also benefitted from these connections as they gained a new appreciation for the potential of youth partnerships.
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Connect youth to community assets. Partnerships are at the core of effective community efforts and youth benefit from learning how to do with the community not for the community. For that reason, youth efforts in community projects should be embedded in institutions and organizations—such as schools, food banks, and municipal governments—that provide support and guidance. Schools, non-profits, and municipal governments are just a few of the types of organizations that partnered with the youth in developing NGCL project ideas.
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Engage youth for the right amount of time. As discussed, youth living in distressed communities have fewer opportunities to contribute to health and well-being in their communities. From an equity perspective, working with others to address community challenges and build leadership skills is something we want as many youths as possible to experience. By requiring youth-serving organizations to “turn over” teams within a year, we gave the youth the civic/leadership experience and cleared the way for another cohort to benefit from the experience. With the right resources, youth-serving organizations would probably be able to create an effective team, work with the community to develop and implement a project that improves health in the community and harnesses the time, talent, and energy of youth in a couple of months.
We believe that more health funders should be funding initiatives that engage youth as partners in building health and increasing equity in their communities because we know that communities become healthier and more equitable when a diverse set of stakeholders are engaged in finding solutions. We hope that this piece has increased your interest in funding experiences that engage youth as partners.
For more information about the Next Generation Community Leaders initiative, please reach out to Bob Atkins at Atkins@NJHI.org.
Hart, D. & Atkins, R. (2011). American Sixteen and Seventeen-Year-Olds Are Ready to Vote. Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science 633, 201-222. 10.1177/0002716210382395.
Hart, D., & Youniss, J. (2018). Renewing Democracy in Young America. Oxford University Press.
Kress, C. A. (2006). Youth leadership and youth development: Connections and questions. New Directions for Youth Development, 2006(109), 45–56.
Larson, R. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170-183. doi: 10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.170