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Youth Voice and Agency: The Way to a Brighter Future

By Jacques Noisette, Director of Social-Emotional Learning

Young people around the world are rising up to use their voice to make change. From Nobel Peace Prize winner and girls education advocate Malala Yousafzai to National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman to climate activist Greta Thunberg to gun control activist David Hogg, young people have gained international renown for their urgent calls to action.

In addition to the young people making headlines, there are legions more working tirelessly to create a world better than the one they inherited. Across America, young people are pushing for an end to police violence, equity in education, gay and transgender rights, and so much more.

Experts in youth advocacy say that these bold activists will have lasting impact on their communities and society.

“When young people discover they can be agents of change, wonderful things happen. They start to serve in the neighborhoods, learn about public issues, create innovative solutions to tough public challenges and eventually become the voters, community project builders and leaders in our communities and nation,” says Alma Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance, a national coalition dedicated to ensuring young people’s success.

As youth educators and advocates, we can take an active role in helping young people to use their voice to become agents of change.

What is Youth Voice and Agency?

According to the Freechild Institute for Youth and Social Change, an Olympia, Washington-based organization that supports institutions in their efforts to develop youth leaders, youth voice consists of “the active, distinct, and concentrated ways young people represent themselves throughout society.” Youth agency differs slightly. The International Youth Foundation of Baltimore defines agency as “the desire and ability of young people to make decisions and drive change—in their own lives, in their communities, and in their larger spheres of influence.”

When young people feel they have agency to make change they can put their voice to work to make society fairer, healthier, and better for all.

As youth educators and advocates, we can nurture a sense of agency among young people by helping them develop:

  • Communication skills: Teaching young people to express themselves accurately and clearly helps them to define and achieve their goals as well as to successfully work through conflict.

  • A sense of shared purpose: Stressing the importance of giving back to their communities can help young people become engaged citizens as well as role models for others.

  • Problem solving skills: Helping young people learn how to develop innovative ways to solve issues will last them a lifetime.

  • A sense of accountability: Teaching young people to be accountable for themselves and to hold others accountable nurtures a sense of responsibility and shared purpose.

Taking Action

How can programs encourage young people to find their voice and then use their voice to improve society? There are many ways!

  • Co-Planning: One great way to get young people on board is to invite them into the process for planning and facilitating lessons. By giving people a role in shaping the programs and processes that will affect them, educators can generate buy-in. If you give young people ownership and opportunities you will be surprised by how high they will fly. “There is something fundamentally amiss about building and rebuilding an entire system without consulting at any point those it is designed to serve,” says Allison Cook-Sather, professor of education at Bryn Mawr College. I could not agree more.

  • Conversing: Most people do not enjoy confronting people and raising difficult issues.I believe that this is partly because from a young age we are taught to avoid such conversations and so we never learn how to embark upon them in a healthy, constructive way. As a society we need to actually teach youth how to talk about even the toughest issues articulately and clearly. Being able to make an argument without having an argument is a key skill for youth to learn in order to make their voice heard.

  • Elevating Social Issues: Don’t be afraid to raise discussions surrounding social issues that concern youth. So often, especially in schools, adults steer clear of discussing social issues because they are afraid that people will be offended and that kids will start arguing. But what if we framed conversations around social issues as opportunities to discuss ways to make change? By learning how to navigate difficult conversations with an eye toward solving problems, educators can pass along many important lessons.

  • Establishing Student Governance: Creating a student government is a great way to demonstrate a commitment to youth voice and agency. By giving students real power to make decisions about issues that affect them, students can learn to feel that they have real power. In addition, participating in school government gives students the opportunity to develop their communication, problem solving, and collaboration chops. But don’t just pay lip service to the student government. For lessons about agency to stick, these governing bodies must have real authority.

Final Thoughts

By teaching young people that their voice, thoughts, and opinions matter, educators give them the tools and skills for a lifetime as successful, fully engaged citizens. And, who knows, you might just end up training the next Nobel laureate.

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