Foundations of Youth Engagement

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Foundations of Youth Engagement

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

How do we define youth and youth-led movements or programs?

What is the importance of involving youth in activism?

What are the risks associated with engaging youth in advocacy efforts?

Examples of youth-led or youth-focused movements of note and the activities, approaches, strategy and tactics used throughout the process to engage youth

How can the tools and tactics for action adapt when working with youth?

what is youth?

The UN has written a fact sheet on this:

But what I find so interesting is that the conception of youth is changing. More and more, we are spending more time in education, gaining experience etc. Adulthood was once defined as after high school; then, as after university; now, maybe after graduate or vocational school? Maybe it's because people live longer, but it seems we keep extending our conception of youth.

And this may not be that important, until you understand youth as a demographic that faces unique challenges and has unique needs to engagement. I believe that youth engagement is social change isn't just about engaging people of a certain age, it's about engaging a demographic of people who collectively face a unique set of challenges. To me, this is why youth matters. 

Diversity of Youth Voices

Thanks for giving some insight on how to define youth. I agree that it's not just about age, but the demographic and challenges youth face. I think it's important to remember that youth are just as diverse as any other age group. Sometimes youth are clumped together and are said to have a single stance on a matter. When working with youth we shouldn't filter their voices down to one view because that degrades the value in what they are expressing. Instead it's better to include individual voices of youth, even if one young person's view contradicts another's.

This is what we practice at the LYAC - if you look at our reports www.lyac/lyacpolistories you'll see a variety of opinions on each topic rather than one unified view... That being said, there is value in a unified voice in some situations, but for our purposes I believe diversity is best!

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What influences youth participation?

From it's work with youth in the past, Equitas has develeoped a model of participation. Though the factors influencing the level of youth participation can vary greatly from one context to another, as well as from one youth to another, three principal elements should be taken into consideration when aiming to strengthen youth participation: capacity, motivation and opportunity.

Capacity includes the knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours that youth need in order to participate effectively. Capacity will of course vary according to the inherent strengths of individual youth, but it will also be shaped by the individual’s life experience, by opportunities afforded to him/her to express thoughts and ideas, to work in teams, to address challenges, and develop self-esteem. 

Motivation is the desire or willingness of individual youth to participate, and possibly to commit to involvement or action over the longer term. Motivation varies according to the personality, preferences and interests of individual youth, but is also influenced by his/her own experience and the opportunities afforded to him/her to change things in his/her own life or community. 

Opportunity refers to any situation where youth can participate effectively. Opportunities vary according to local capacity to recognise the needs and interests of young people and to create spaces, events or circumstances favourable to youth participation.

When developing a needs assessment, program or evaluation, it is important to consider all three elements and where they intersect, as each element is interdependent on the others.

Recently, we  used this model to help analyze the situation in Tanzania, where partiarchal strucutres and cutlure is one of the major barreirs to youth participation. In a baseline study, youth expressed that they do not have the skills or opportunities to participate in decision-making processes, and that their opionions are not valued by the community. The lack of opportunities and support left youth unmotivated and unwilling to contribute to their community. 

Equitas (2013). Speaking Rights. 

Equitas (2015). SHREG Baseline Study, Tanzania. 

Risks in Engaging Youth

Since this is my first post, I just want to mention that I am participating jointly with my colleague Dina Wolf, our youth outreach coordinator.  We’ll each be chiming in at various points. 

I think of this question both in terms of the risks to youth as well as risks to human rights organizations and initiatives.  I’ll just post a few thoughts and welcome others’ perspectives!

There are a number of risks for youth participating in advocacy efforts.  Beyond the typical risks that come alongside human rights work in many contexts, youth may exhibit less fear and put themselves in harmful situations that more experienced human rights advocates might avoid.  In some cases, they may get caught up in movements without fully recognizing the possible consequences for their safety and the safety of others. 

I also think there are a number of risks to the human rights movement if youth engagement isn’t carefully thought through – sometimes young people want to participate in small actions and see quick results.  I think it’s really important to be honest with young people about how their efforts contribute to change that may take a long time in achieving so they aren’t disillusioned (and they don’t disengage) if the impacts are slow to materialize. I also think it is really important to educate young people in a meaningful way about the issues they are involved in addressing, and help them recognize that action without knowledge can do more harm than good, even with the best intentions.


You do a great job summarizing the variety of risks of youth involvement in human rights. Have you found any tactics that work particularly well to address and minimize these risks?

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You make very valid points

You make very valid points about risks of youth engagement that I haven't neccesarily considered. I especially identify with one of your last points about how many of us young people expect quick and visible results from small actions when that is often not the reality. This is something that I have had to come to terms with as I've gotten more interested in advocacy work. However, sometimes I think advocacy opportunities are marketed that way to appeal to a youth, with a kind of "do this today and change the world tomorrow" type of message. What do you think promotes and contributes to that kind of thinking? I also agree that acknowleding that change takes time is essential but what do you think is the best method adressing it without sounding discouraging?

Education as first step

Thanks Clara and Angela for your great questions! 

In terms of reducing the risk of causing harm in our actions I think it is important to consider the first action step may be to LEARN MORE!  So many of us want to feel that we are making a difference through taking action, but educating ourselves about the complexities of a human rights issue we care about and learning from those with expertise and experience with that issue is an important first step we can all take.  It also helps connect us to the issues in a deeper and more meaningful way.  In our global-to-local service-learning initiative, we’ve talked about ways to help youth delve deeper into investigating the problems but also investigating solutions.  Through the process of trying to understand different dimensions of a problem and then exploring “what’s being done?,” youth may be able to identify an initiative or organization that really aligns with their talents and interests.

I also agree that it is really important to stay positive and involve youth in meaningful ways without discouraging them or making the human rights problems seem unmanageable.  Even if some human rights problems are difficult to address quickly, there can be successes along the way!  I think it can be helpful to acknowledge that major transformations take time, but equally we need to celebrate some of the steps that move us closer to achieving our long-term goals.  One thing we’ve talked about is identifying ways to involve youth in coming up with realistic criteria of what success looks like in the short-term and long-term.  That gives us a framework to guide our efforts and celebrate the contributions we are making over time.

Are there other ways we could involve youth in defining and assessing change?

Working with Youth: How and Why

“In a learning culture, communication and relationships are very important. Creating a learning culture in a community means a shift in ways of believing, thinking, and doing at all levels and in all sectors. If this is so, the shift in the thinking and practices in a community would mean that the education and development of youth would be a central focus of every citizen in every dimension of the community- not just of schools.” (Patricia Moore Harbour, 2012- Community Educators: A Resource for Educating and Developing our Youth)


Although we have different cultural and political backgrounds, I think the importance of involving youth in activism bears a common reason or answer: for a democracy to be functional there is need of democratic and dedicated citizens. The next clarifying question will then be: how can youth become active citizens and be an important part in the process of democratization? Well, let’s play an imagination game: we identified the community to work with- youth. We have an informal group of youth. In order to have positive results, we need to build trust, which means that we find the group’s self-interest, something that also interests the majority. Listen to their needs and help them find doable and rational solutions. In this way, they can realize that they can actually change something. Let the group find leaders that will represent their initiatives and help them walk through the whole process of change. In this way, we empower them to come with solutions that will help the bigger community. 

Service-Learning as Tool for Listening and Engaging Youth Voice

Thank you so much for your post.  It strikes me that all of the posts are bringing up the critical issue of youth voice.  I often hear about youth-led or youth-driven initiatives and programs and many times what they are sharing is that they had youth attending an event or program that the adults chose and decided what action to take.  It may be that youth were the volunteers that facilitated a discussion or helped with a project, but it wasn’t a discussion or project that the youth decided to engage in because of their own interests, talents, and passions.  At the heart of this is allowing space for finding the tools and tactics that help the adults get out of the way and facilitate true youth driven actions. This can be uncomfortable and scary for adults running programs where funders are looking for certain outcomes or in classrooms where educators are concerned about giving up control of the learning process, yet it is critical for transformation of our communities and fostering an active citizenry and civil society.


One tool that we have begun to work with in classrooms with the Milwaukee Public School district is Global/Local Service-Learning.   At the heart of service-learning is youth voice through investigating an issue and need in the community, deciding what type of action to take, planning that action/project, implementing the action/project, celebrating and evaluating the action/project, and incorporating reflection throughout the process that ties back to classroom content and/or understanding of the issue in the larger societal context. One of the resources we’ve used is from Youth Service America that outlines the methodology and has user friendly worksheets and guides that can be adapted according to your specific needs.

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Finding the Flow between adult-youth voice

Good morning!  What fun to see all the products of yesterday's conversations!  :)  I want to lift up a strategy we have found effective for engaging and giving POWER to youth voice...and it is giving them $$$/money to support their decisions/opinions through grantmaking.  There are a variety of very interesting models across the world for how NGOs, foundations, and families are doing this.  In partnership with the Foundation Center, we completed a scan of these programs for the first time last year.  Here's a link to the report:  I would direct your attention to two things:

1.  pg. 14-16 the recommendations

2.  starting pg. 20 the list of programs identified.  This list will be used as the starting place to develop an online portal for youth grantmaking.  If you know of programs/efforts that should be added to the list, please let me know! 

For our international readers, I want to lift up:

I want to echo Dina's plug for the YSA resources and also give a shout out to Learning by Giving---which has FREE, US standard-aligned curriculum for schools, nonprofits, and famlies to use:  (FYI-I serve on the BOD for this org and we are going through a HUGE website look for more user-friendly structure coming soon!)  A lot of service learning programs use this curriculum and we are seeing a growing number of schools (especially private schools in the US) implement youth philanthropy or giving circle models as a part of their service learning/philanthropy 101 classes.



Risks in not engaging youth

I think that there are substantial risks in not engaging youth. The truth is, we cannot argue with demographics' young people are increasingly growing in number, and thus there is a lot of potential to make change. Currently, this potential is too often lost, minimized or ignored.

I think that there are too many misconceptions about the value of young people that have continued to alienate youth. Such sentiments, such parental (mis)perceptions, may be one reason we see so much disengagement - not only in human rights, but social good as a whole.

And, let's be honestly, the social good community (human rights included) have certainly not been even close to as successful as we should have been; young people have relied on our parents to make so much change and the generations before us have left us a mess. It's a sad and weighty reality, but one we cannot ignore.

Thus, I strongly and respectfully argue that youth are a fundamental piece to puzzle in the context of impact. Absolutely, we, as young people, need knowledge, mentorship, and support. We want the lessons of those who have come before us, but we also need our ideas to be taken seriously. 



Yes, yes, yes, and yes!!!  Thank you for your important post.  I'm with you that we can't afford to NOT engaging youth.  I was at a conference yesterday where youth activism was discussed without one darn young people present in the room.  What a missed opportunity!  One of the youngest people there (~25) stood up and said that as long as meetings happen while young people are expected to be in school and that the systems the "adults" want changed are such a mess and entangled in such complexity, what's the incentive?  


While this question made perfect sense to me, it does bring up a questionI would be interested in hearing more from the group about?

Know that the younger generations have been coined as the "ME" generation, what is the incentive to do this community change work for young people?  How do you articulate that?


The Middle East and Africa Youth Bulge

My work is focused on the Middle East and Africa, so this comment relates to engaging youth in those reasons.

Across the Middle East and Africa, communities are experiencing a “youth bulge,” with young people far outnumbering older adults, often in circumstances of high unemployment and other social, economic and political stresses. Researchers and scholars have documented the resulting potential for crises stemming from widespread discontent, including conflicts spiraling into violence and the draw of violent extremism.

For example in Yemen, nearly half of the population is under the age of 15 according to the World Bank. Uganda is the world’s youngest country with 57 percent of the country’s population under the age of 18.

Young people across the globe are a driving force for change. They are creative, inspired, energetic and enthusiastic. In order to create sustainable impact, international development must collaborate with and learn from these crucial stakeholders. If leaders alienate this huge portion of society they will fuel the discontent, revolt, and violence that we saw in the Arab Spring. By including youth in the decision making processes, empowering them to have a voice about their future, and leveraging their creativity and energy, we can see an imense amount of change for the better.

"youth bulge"

Greetings! I definitely agree with the comments made above. Africa is now known as the "youngest continent," housing the largest number of youth as compared to other regions in the world. Everytime I travel back to Ethiopia, I am amazed at the faces of young people in the capital city of Addis Ababa. One of my own involvements has been with youth and music, as the arts prove a fertile ground for young people to articulate their aspirations and hopes for their countries. In order for youth to be included in the decision making process, they first need to be aware of the current political, economic and social dynamics in their countries --hence, the need for greater opportunities and venues for their learning. What the youth demand is for the opportunity to heard

UDHR and the Arts

Excellent comments on integrating music and the arts as a tool for young people to articulate their hopes and aspirations for their countries.  I think this is valid for young people no matter where they are from.  We’ve actively been pursuing ways to incorporate more art into our programs.  We found this a great avenue for engaging all of our youth and building understanding and connection between communities and it has been especially relevant when we engage youth who have may have seen or personally experienced some of the human rights issues we are addressing.  Last year at our summer leadership program, GATE, we incorporated various activities using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and arts.  A great resource for lesson plans and guides in this regard is from The World As It Could Be,   What are some additional examples or ways individuals and organizations are utilizing art to engage youth around the world?    

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Additional Examples

@wolfd Thank you for your questions! One particular movement in Ethiopia came to my mind. Please check out this website:

@Annie.I actually think that

@Annie.I actually think that the "ME Generation" term may be true for some people, but is very untrue for other.

In a study by the US Bureau of labour statistics, the most likely demographic to volunteer is 35-44 year olds. The least likely is 20-24 year olds. (

That statistic is disappointing. But I think that as much as we have the ME Generation to blame, we must turn the mirror around and look at us as a social good community. What are we doing to engage youth? How are we incentivizing it? How are we enticing young people?

I don't believe that we are doing enough; I think that the failure is as much on them as it is on us.

All that being said, I co-produced a documentary a couple years ago called "Conversations for Change", where my team travelled around Canada to interview young and amazing change-makers. The film examines a lot of things including why youth do what they do (and advise they have to share with others, young and old). You can watch the film here: One thing that I can tell you: these people are not generation ME; they're extraordinary and have wisdom and experiences that must be shared.



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Other ways of engaging for young people?

I wonder if statistics about volunteering are the best way to measure youth engagement and involvement in human rights. As a young person, I am engaged in the issues of human rights and social justice but I haven't necessarily had the time to express those through volunteering. The structures of a university education make it difficult for all but the most dedicated to engage in volunteer work, in my experience. In contrast, 35-44 year olds are more likely to have a job and may be searching for fulfillment in other places. I know that's the case for some of the volunteers at the Center for Victims of Torture and New Tactics. Thus I would expect them to have a higher rate of volunteerism. I'm mostly wondering what other ways of measuring engagement exist that would better identify the contributions of young people to human rights.

That said, I agree with Nejeed that the "me generation" includes some but not all of us, and I would like to add that even those who seem self-absorbed (via social media, for example) might care deeply about human rights issues.

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@clara. I think you raise a

@clara. I think you raise a really good point. It is our responsibility, then, to find ways to better engage those who do care

Not to overly promote, but that is a big focus of what we are doing at Keela ( We have built both a set of tools (for collaboration and efficiecny), but also a community. One of our goal is to increase engagement in a way that allows people in school, have multiple jobs etc. make impact.



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One Approach to Engaging Youth

Young people can bring contagious enthusiasm, outside-the-box thinking, and a fervent desire to make a difference to causes that matter to them. The organizations they support, in turn, find it possible to advance their cause, consider new approaches, and train the next generation of organizational leaders. These opportunities do come with a cost: organizations must balance encouraging an all-is-possible attitude with grounding youth in realities and protocols that matter to the organization, its mission, and the individuals it will impact.

People to People International (PTPI) sees incredible potential in engaging young people and supporting them in carrying out PTPI's global mission of building understanding between everyday citizens across countries and cultures. We do this in a sustainable way through our chapter network, of which approximately 80 chapters are comprised of students who want to make a difference in their local communities and in the world more generally.

While students decide to start a PTPI chapter for a number of reasons, one of our primary chapter-forming propellants is our annual Global Youth Forum (GYF), which convenes students ages 13-18 from around the world to dig deeply into issues of global importance. Past topics have included global health, global education, and human rights. This year's GYF, to be held in Atlanta, Georgia, in November, will focus on human rights, encouraging students to understand the topic and challenges, learn about existing approaches, and plan action they can take once they leave Atlanta. The GYF has spurred students to form student chapters; pursue studies and volunteer work in nonprofit organizations, policy, and international topics; and advocate for today's challenges that matter to them.

This sort of an annual gathering has numerous benefits but several in particular that relate to engaging and sustaining youth in a movement. Our young people are invited to participate annually, so the GYF becomes a sort of family they look forward to reconnecting with each year. Our adult leaders are phenomenal at what they do and help to form students not just as advocates for that year's issue but as world-changing leaders who have opportunities to connect meaningfully with peers and see what is possible when a group of likeminded, committed individuals comes together. Our alumni regularly give back to the program, as well, with one of 2014's presenters being a student who fell in love with the GYF and has gone on to pursue a career in government. The GYF also takes the work of PTPI out of the conceptual and into the tangible: students learn what PTPI's mission is about and take it with them to enact in their communities. All of these outcomes, I believe, are part and parcel of engaging youth. Thank you Thank you for drawling light to PTPI's work! I am curious to the general ways students are supported in carrying out PTPI's mission on the ground. In particular, what are some activities undertaken with a local chapter that further engages youth involvement in their respective countries? 

PTPI's Work

Hi, Hawi, and thanks for your question.

One of the great aspects of PTPI is the diversity of our membership but the way everyone is able to come together to support the same mission. Diverse members, as you can imagine, carry out the mission in diverse ways through diverse projects, and we love to hear about their work. Our blog ( houses numerous stories from community (adult) and student chapters. They can give you a sense of the various efforts our chapters have undertaken.

One of my favorites comes from a chapter in Gurnee, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Chapter members wanted to introduce their community to the many chapters that call Gurnee home, so we worked together to develop a cultural fair at a local park. They brought together performers, crafts, food, and music and had a great turnout--as high-school students. Their project was informed by the connections and experiences they had had as members of PTPI. Other chapters pursue very different projects--service work, connections with other chapters, leadership training--but it all focuses on their development as globally competent everyday citizens, and their work, no matter what it is, leaves positive ripples in their local community.

Please let me know if you'd like to learn more about the work of PTPI. It would be great to have you involved!

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Hey Matthew! Thank you for

Hey Matthew! Thank you for the elaboration. I especially liked the blog post on cultural cooking. I might be using the recepe from Liberia myself! I would like to learn more your organization. One area of interest I have is building greater network and forms of exchange between young diasporas and their respective local communities. I have taken part in diaspora trainings but these have been geared toward adults--especially as it pertians to their role in their countries economic development. As youth cannot contribute to this vastly, its important to create avenues of contribution that further faciliates cultural exchange.

Sports for Change @wolfd

@wolfd Thank you for your questions! One particular movement in Ethiopia came to my mind. Please check out this website:


Generational historical grievances

Among the diapsora, particularly with my experiences from the Horn of Africa, ethnic tensions from their respective countries become even more augmented in their global, diasporic circle. People live within their own "ethnic enclaves," finding only limited avenues for interaction and cultural exchange beyond their communities. I have seen this affect the life of young people, as parents carry grievances and unhealed wounds that are now passed down to their children. The healing and reconciliation process is not only needed for the adults but also for the younger generation who become bearers of such victimized narrative. How can we further address this issue? How could youth be vital in the process of confronting the historical past in order to articulate the future with hope?