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Youth Today: Youth Consultants for Change

By Karen Pittman, May 2003

Summer is coming. In communities across the country, nonprofits, schools, faith groups and businesses will offer young people a broad range of structured opportunities. Some of those opportunities will even give young people a chance to contribute.

But how many organizations will ask youth to help expand or improve their core work? How many will bring on youth as consultants to help change communities?

"Youth participation" is a given in youth agencies. "Youth as resources" has almost become cliché. "Youth organizing" is the new powerhouse phrase. But, consider "youth consulting for community change." That's food for thought. Here's why:

A few years ago, the Forum staff and I had a chance to learn about dozens of organizations by interviewing dozens of youth and youth workers who had pushed beyond youth development toward youth action — young people involved in service, organizing, advocacy, governance and entrepreneurship in neighborhoods and in the major institutions that affect their lives.

These organizations had compelling rationales for why young people should be involved. Each offered a combination of skill-building, awareness-building and change-making opportunities.

Interestingly, however, most had lopsided measures of the payoff of such youth involvement. They had bold hopes for the benefits to young people and clear ways of measuring those benefits, but the defined benefits to the community were timid and fuzzy.

There must be ways for youth organizations to hold themselves accountable for trying to improve communities and to help young people contribute to and assess progress, however incremental. An idea for how this could happen hit me while facilitating a meeting of community partners with our Community IMPACT! affiliate in Nashville, Tennessee. (See Community IMPACT!)

Like many youth leadership organizations, Community IMPACT! gives young people in low-income communities an opportunity to combine work, learning and action. Agency leaders recognize that youth, especially poor youth, must often choose between making money and making change and understand that helping youth do both requires sharpening their academic, social and leadership skills.

Community IMPACT! Nashville knew that to help change the odds for more youth, it could not be the only organization in East Nashville committed to offering this type of hybrid experience. So the agency took a bold step: it raised money to hire young people to work not only for Community IMPACT!, but in other community organizations during the summer. Everyday, these creative, bright and enthusiastic young people will serve as living proof of the power of investing in and involving youth at all levels of the organizations.

The selected organizations — ranging from the science center to a church to an economic development corporation — were committed to improving youth opportunities in East Nashville, and were seen as having the capacity to continue hiring young people in leadership positions in the future.

There is no doubt that this strategy can work. The youth philanthropy movement, for example, has not only changed the way community foundations think about youth, it has raised the bar for other community institutions that now clamor to give young people stronger and more visible decision-making power on issues central to organizational missions.

The question is, can shifting the thinking about young people's roles in an adult organization accelerate changes in the organization and the community?

In a 1996 column, I quoted a South African youth worker as saying, "We cannot help young people become generators if we ourselves are batteries." I emphasized the need to shift from viewing youth workers as the source energy, to viewing them as catalysts for youth engagement.

Youth consulting for community change takes this idea to the next level. Staff members train youth to act as generators within community organizations. Youth help organizations generate positive community change. And youth and adult staff come together to support a network of organizations devoted to changing the odds for youth.

How? Rather than deploying youth to fulfill internships at each organization, staff members see themselves and youth as consultants to organizations, expanding educational and economic opportunities for other youth. Their goal: to provide technical support to organizations and leverage the work of the network as a whole.

This means sitting down with each organization to understand the goals, strategies, timeline and the short-term indicators of success. This means developing youth consulting plans that may not have young people neatly assigned in pairs, working 9 to 5 shifts, but doing whatever it takes. This may mean integrating core staff as part of the technical assistance team and training the young people as ethnographers and participant observers to document progress toward the goal. It means that bringing the organizations together to create a common vision is as important as working with young people individually.

So think about this summer: an organization that trains and deploys a dozen young people in internships helps 12 youth increase their odds of success. But imagine the impact those young people could have as part of a youth/adult firm that is committed to helping 12 organizations create a network of opportunities to help youth and families throughout the community improve their odds as well.

Read More:
Youth • Action • Community • Development: The Community and Youth Development Series. 2001. The Forum for Youth Investment. This seven-book series, developed by The Forum in collaboration with communities and organizations throughout the world, addresses such topics as the tensions that exist in the fields of youth development and community development, roles young people are already playing in communities internationally, and the structures that support youth participation in national dialogues about community investment and change.

Community IMPACT! Nashville is a neighborhood-based, youth-centered, nonprofit organization that is empowering young people ages 15 to 24 to take control of their individual futures and the futures of their neighborhoods.

Generators or Batteries?1996. Karen Pittman. The Forum for Youth Investment.In this Youth Today column, Pittman explores the state of youth work in South Africa and Great Britain, as well as the United States.

The Youth Grantmakers Web site, made available by the Michigan Community Foundation Youth Project, provides the latest information to those seeking grant funding and other available resources.

Pittman, K. (2003, May). "Youth Consultants for Change." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in
Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
May 1, 2003
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