Developing Leadership and Empowerment Among Youth

19 posts / 0 new
Last post
Developing Leadership and Empowerment Among Youth

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

What practices does your organization use to empower youth to become effective leaders?

How can youth help empower one another and leverage their peer relationships?

What systems can be used to put youth in control of strategic direction?

How can organizations increase youth interest and participation in the causes they address?

How can youth participatory evaluation models be used as a tool for involving youth in assessment, development and research of programs?

Leadership & Empowerment

There are hundreds of organizations which focus on developing leadership skills for young people internationally (we focus on the Middle East and Africa). Where my organization, Generation Change, found space to create impact was by supporting more established young leaders and providing them with skills and support they need in order to remain active in civil society. Due to the inherent difficulties of working for change in the Middle East and Africa, we found that promising young leaders exhaust themselves without a proper support system.

We choose to engage existing leaders who are already creating impact within their communtities and provide them with leadership, conflict resolution skills, and a supportive network. We found the majority of existing programs offer "hard skills" such as organizational management, social media marketing, social entrepreneurship, or finance management. We, as an organization hosted at the United States Institute of Peace, focus on providing the often forgotten "soft skills." These skills include communication skills, telling one's story, managing difficult conversations and interpersonal conflict, among others. 



Members tagged in this comment: 
Continuum of Participation

When we are talking about youth participation/engagement-- especially when it comes to evaluation or program development-- it is important to consider the various levels of participation. Are youth merely present or are they active in making decisions and contributing to the process? 

Here are two different examples:

Scenario 1: Small group of youth between the ages of 15 and 18 are actively involved in identifying priorities of their local community center's programming for youth. In collaboration with the leaders of the organization, they helps determine what activities will be offered to young people.

Scenario 2: The community center's new priority is to promote physical activity, so it is planning to replace cooking classes with basketball. The center consults young people through a questionnaire and they mention that they want to have cooking classes and dance classes. In the end, according to its priorities, the center decides to cut cooking classes, but offers dance and basketball.

In the first scenario, youth are actively engaged—they are part of the process, and their thoughts and opinions are valued. In the second scenario, the level of participation is much lower--youth are only consulted, and their opinion does not hold weight against the priorities to the organization. 

When you look at the programs or initiatives that involve youth in your organization, what is the level that youth are participating at? It may not always be possible to have youth actively involved, or fully participating, but if they are only ever used for information or consulted, consider how you might increase participation in the future.

Below is a link to the full continuum which gives definitions and examples of  youth participation from "non-participation" through to "full participation". The examples can help organizations think about how they are engaging youth and how they might increase youth participation.

Note: The continuum was adapated from the follwoing source

Sherry R. Arnstein, A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, vol. 35, n° 4, July1969, pp. 216-224

Thank you--great resource and

Thank you--great resource and point!

Application in Different Contexts

Thanks for sharing this resource! This is a point I hadn't considered before but I agree that the various levels of participation must be taken into account. I think that this is especially relevent in contexts where youth are not the primary focus of the organization but rather a part of the program's "youth advisory panel" or something of a similar nature. I've seen many of these programs reach success because youth are actively engaged and their suggestions have impact in the decision making process. On the other hand, I've also witnessed unsucessful programming that attemps to further involve youth but ultimately fails to reach that goal because the young people involved rarely have the chance to voice an opinon (and when they do, it tends to carry little weight) and seem to be there merely to observe. I would say that these situations fall under the "consultation" catagory on the continuum of participation link you provided where it's described as decision makers presenting possible avenues to youth and allow them to ask questions and provide feedback but the opinions expressed may not be taken into account. Although it's not always possible to reach "full participation" levels on that spectrum, I think programs should strive for the "influence" level where youth are undoubtedly influencing decisions about their environment.

Young trustees

What practices does your organization use to empower youth to become effective leaders?

We have a youth advisory panel that advise the work of the organisation. We also recruit 2 observers to the board of directors to reflect the voice of youth. In addition I am 23 and came from that panel, however, legally registered trustees do not 'represent' anyone - my job is to act in the best interests of the charity and that may be contrary to what young people want and so we have developed this model over time.

How can youth help empower one another and leverage their peer relationships?

Mentoring, supporting each other to find best practice case studies, to give themselves a duty to tell their story and spread the work of what they are doing.

What systems can be used to put youth in control of strategic direction?

Critically, appointing younger trustees is the supreme way of doing so as the board is responsible for strategic direction. Also, organisations should embrace young talent in their executive to actually deliver this stuff.

How can organizations increase youth interest and participation in the causes they address?

I don't think this is necessarily critical. Because, then, you are getting into the space of campaigning. It is much stronger if you come to the board with an understanding of the business, the way that strategy works and come to the table with answers to the big questions.


Junior Boards

While I am not a fan of any of the oftern necessary identifiers--junior, next gen, youth, etc---we have found that Junior Boards can be an effective way to structure leadership to the youth activities/voice.  Here's a white paper I co-authored with a young person, Katie Marcus Reker, on Junior Boards in Family Foundations:

While the examples are foundation-based, much of the considerations and advice for development I think are transferrable.  

Empowerment of a Title

One way that the London Youth Advisory Council has empowered me is by simply giving me a title. It sounds kind of silly, maybe even superficial, but ever since becoming a "Youth Ward Councilor" the way that I think about myself and my abilities as a youth has radically changed. Being a councilor has allowed me to attend events I never would have though about before; introduce myself to people who I wouldn't have had the courage to do otherwise; take initiative on a project addressing an issue I care about; stand up in front of City Council and make sure they know what I think should be included in the Municipal budget; facilitate conversations with other youth about everyday politics in their lives; and the list goes on and on.

I think having a title impacted me so much because I felt a responsibility to live out that role and I quickly made it a significant part of my identity. Looking back I realize these are all things I could have still done as "plain old" Nicole. When my time comes to move on from the LYAC I will take that new sense of identity and abilities with me regardless of my title.

How do we get youth to realize they don't need a fancy title of position of power before going out of their comfort zone, getting engaged and creating change? What is preventing them from already doing these things?


Great Point


Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and what you gained from being given a title!  What I found is that sometimes when a title is given it can shift perspective for an individual and feel a little bit like they have been given permission to step into their personal power and passion for issues they care about in a way that offers acceptance of risk taking without judgment.   One way that we work with youth to embrace and recognize their ability to engage and create change without needing a title is through reflection and small group activities focused on what knowledge, experience, interests, and talents they already have.  One of the activities we use is the “Spark +Fire + ASAP” model. It’s a model from Youth Service America that we learned about as part of our Global/Local Service Learning Initiatives.  It has been an excellent activity in drawing out awareness and understanding of who you are, what you care about, and possible ideas for how to utilize that awareness for creating change and impacting the issues that you care about.  We adapt this activity depending on the group we are working with from the Classrooms with a Cause Guides in the resource section of the Youth Service America website I shared in a previous post,


Members tagged in this comment: 

That sounds like a great approach! Thanks for sharing!

Symbolic Value and Capacity Building

Nicole, thanks for sharing your experiences with the London Youth Advisory Council. I agree that titles and opportunities matter. There's significant symbolic value for participants just by including them in a process, making them feel heard and valued, and allowing them to see their ideas put into action. This symbolic value can have a great effect on their willingness to contribute in the future, advocate on behalf of the organization's efforts, and recruit colleagues and connections to join the movement.

As you note, though, the heart of the matter is about more than just titles. In addition to shifting participants' self-perception (which can come just through including them in a conversation), it's also important to give them opportunities to build their capacity to contribute. You mention that you could have accomplished much of what you did with the LYAC without the special role; I'll wager, though, that you were able to fulfill your role increasingly well over time thanks to the opportunities, connections, and training you received. If we want youth to contribute in meaningful ways and grow into roles that allow them to lead strategically in the future, it is essential that we help them grow their capacity for leadership and their knowledge, skills, and attitudes around the issues at hand.

That's one of the reasons I think our present conversation is so important: we're looking for ways to strengthen our own understanding of how best to engage and capacitate youth in the area of human rights, but, really, these lessons apply to their engagement in social issues in general.

Members tagged in this comment: 

I totally agree re: value of including youth in a process. That is much of the work that the LYAC does by trying to integrate youth voices into public policy.

You're definitely right in saying that the opportunities, connections, and the training I had empowered me to go out and fulfill the role. Technically, I could have done it "on my own", but I doubt I, along with the majority of youth, would have actually taken initiative without the amazing support of the organization.

Thanks for your comment!

Members tagged in this comment: 
Change in Approaches

In my view, we have to change our approaches within the organizations to develop leadership and empowerment among youth. Organizations have to develop and desgin youth projects and programs by defining youth's ownership and responsibility. I would like to share with you the example of project  developed by Human Rights Alliance HRA Pakistan. Project was titled as Youth for Change:  Engagment of Youth for Social Change in Sindh Pakistan. Key objective of the project was to give different responsiblities to youth and handed over the ownership of the project at the end. We have created different youth clubs including youth legal aid club, youth medical aid club and youth information club. Youth has given different responsibilities at the club and their capacities have been developed to provide support to the vulnerable communities.Currently, Youth are running those clubs effectively and bring change in the society with support of our NGO. Earlier the clubs were started in two villages and one city in one district as pilot project. Currently, there are clubs in three districts with large number of membership. Changing approaches by the organizations can develop leadership and empowerment among youth.    

Recruiting Members and Sustainability?

What an excellent approach by looking at youth ownership and responsibility!  Could you share some of the ideas and approaches members of the Youth for Change clubs have been utilizing to recruit new members and any practices they have in place for creating sustainability for their clubs?  One challenge we have been experiencing is high interest by a small group but once those individuals move to different places either because of a new job or schooling then the clubs sometimes fall apart.

Members tagged in this comment: 
Red Cross: RAIDcross

Working at the Minneapolis Chapter of the Red Cross, my team and I are adopting a simulation exercise(RAIDcross) to teach youth about International Humanitarian Law. Unlike the classroom structure, this learning exercise hopes to engage youth directly through playing different roles in humantrian crisis and further conducting a time of reflection. I am excited to try this first RAIDCross event April 27th. In places where recreating such simulation exercise is not feasible, I would like to work on bringing this curiculum in a classroom setting at middle schools--minority students. Empowerment begins with knowledge and engaging this knowledge practically, will I hope, cultivate greater empathy and a deeper desire to impact one's community. 

How can young women empower and motivate one another?

I've posted a little bit already about the program Young Women Young Leaders (YWYL), but I wanted to highlight our lessons around young women empowering and motivating one another. Below I have provided three tips from a resoruce which two of my colleagues are currently developing on how to engage and motivate young women in the community. There are quotes from the girls themselves as well! You will see that mentorship, communication and recruitement were key.

For those of you who have not read my other posts about this program, Young Women, Young Leaders was an Equitas program that aimed to strengthen the participation of young women (15-25yrs) in civic, political and community life in Montreal. It is aimed at increasing the meaningful inclusion and effective participation of young women in decision-making processes that impact on their own lives as well as life in their community. To do this, YWYL integrates an Action for Change process, where young women initiate projects that addressed issues that most affect them in their daily lives, in collaboration with a strong network of community organizations, mentors, municipal leaders and institutional partners.

Expose young women to positive examples of female particpation and leadership through networking and mentorship.

Mentorship and networking opportunities enable young women to share their experiences and discuss strategies for breaking down the barriers they face. There is “solidarity in numbers” and knowing one is not alone in their community or alone in responding to various challenges in one’s life. Mentors share their expertise, teach specific skill sets, and provide general guidance for young women. For example, YWYL included bi-annual meetings and a final Young Women’s Forum to provide a space for young women to meet others and engage with mentors.

“Personally, what motivated me to become a leader in my community was that I don’t see so many females my age out there, I see many more males. I wanted younger generations to see that it’s ok to want to be a successful female and to get your name known at a young age.” - Young woman, Dawson Community Centre 

Communicate outside of the group using their tools

Email, what? Engage with your group using the platforms that they are into, like texting, Instagram and Facebook. It helps keep them up-to-date and engaged in group decisions. Many of these platforms have integrated survey tools which is a great way to get the group’s input on decisions in the project.

 Encourage young women to play an active role in recruiting others

Who better to get someone to participate than a peer? Young women are motivated and inspired by other women they meet, so encourage them to go out and recruit others to join your group.

“Other women motivate young women to participate. Simple as that. We hear but most importantly listen to what they have to say and create a [group] that is inclusive” - Young woman, Dawson Community Centre

Equitas (2015). Engaging Young Women Young Leaders: Tip Sheet

Increasing youth participation/mobilization

One way we aim to increase youth mobilization is by linking youth leaders to other actors in their communities or internationally who address the same cause/issue. We do this to foster synergy, enable learning, and build a network of supporters for our youth leaders.  

Collaboration with strategic partners creates a space for youth leaders to leverage creativity and  build momentum as they implement programming.

Drawing inspiration from others

We have been using a somewhat similar approach in our work, connecting youth to individuals (locally or globally) who have responded to struggles in their lives and communities with a determination to take meaningful action on the causes that matter to them.  It's been a wonderful way to help young people recognize that they have the power within themselves to similarly encounter adversity by reflecting on their own strengths and passions and getting involved.

In our activities, we've also used examples from the New Tactics project or other stories of human rights defenders around the world to invite student reflections on the qualities and strengths they see in those individuals and groups, and learn from the practical experiences of others.  By introducing examples from a wide range of issues and contexts, we also try to show that every community has people who choose to invest their time and energies to promote human rights and human dignity, often against great odds.  It's a great way to inspire students to explore these possibilities in their own lives.

Members tagged in this comment: 
Developing Leadership and Empowerment Among Youth

These are great contributions from all of you and i am grateful to have the opportunity to read and share your great work.In the areas that i work in in West Africa and other parts of the African continent...

When youth have been involved in development initiatives, it has almost always been as beneficiaries rather than as active and equal partners.Even as practitioners we sometimes tends to ignore the inclusion of youths in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of development programmes.
In Obuasi,in the Ashanti Region of Ghana - working with various youth groups we formed the obuasi youth parliament which deliberate on issues afftecting them in the region and then make recommendation to the local government which has a representative in the youth parliament. 

By so doing we have had  local government agencies create specific structures and processes to facilitate true and meaningful partnerships with youth. This includes the creation of youth desks in the various ministries of government and the different organs of regional and international institutions.

Youth have been involved in the consultation processes of individual Municipal and regional development strategies (such as Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers), and that the outcome papers of the municipal acknowledge the role of YLD in the district,municipal and regional development strategies. 

In the mining areas of Ghana,we have in partnership with the youths who are mostly miners and do not have formal education set up youth consultation centres where policy makers usually visits to interact with them to ascertain the situation of youth in the region and how best the local government can intergrate their concerns and also their ideas in planning a strategy for poverty reduction initiatives.

It is also used as a collation centre for youth related activities and research.