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What is Authentic Youth Engagement?

Christina Drushel Williams, Policy Analyst
February 2016

Youth engagement is a powerful way for community-based organizations and government agencies to include the young people they serve in moving their work forward and results in young people being involved in responsible, challenging actions to create positive social change. Youth engagement offers the expertise and partnership of young people, helping adults fully understand what it is like to grow up in a rapidly changing world while navigating the various systems and policies impacting the lives of youth each day.

Youth engagement is most successful when it is authentic and supported by youth-adult partnerships. The question is, what makes the engagement “authentic”?  Throughout the decades, agencies, organizations, and boards have struggled to authentically engage and create decision-making positions for young people.  The failure so often begins when adults and youth are inadequately prepared to work together as equal partners as a result of pre-existing attitudes of both adults and young people.  In the early 1980s, sociologist William Lofquist began challenging adults to rethink how they view and work with young people.  Lofquist developed the Spectrum of Adult Attitudes that places attitudes towards young people into three categories:

  • Youth as objects;
  • Youth as recipients; and
  • Youth as partners.

These attitudes influence the ability of youth-adult partnerships to be effective.  It is critical that the attitudes are addressed to ensure an environment for authentic youth voice and engagement to thrive.


Spectrum of Adult Attitudes

Info-graphic of Spectrum of Adult Attitudes. Reference: Lofquist, W. (1989). The technology of prevention workbook. Associates for Youth Development, Inc., 47-50.


Authentic youth engagement is achieved when young people experience the following:

  • Are respected for their ideas and opinions and are free to state them;
  • Are working in an environment that facilitates their engagement, and they are involved in a meaningful way as teachers as well as students;
  • Are equal partnership in all aspects of their own individual planning and decision-making;
  • Are equal partners in making decisions and determining the direction of programs and activities, including the creation of the agency’s policy, the program or service itself, the training curriculum, and delivery of the program or services;
  • Expect to, and receive, consistent opportunities to set goals, devise strategies, and act;
  • Participate in challenging experiences, with the necessary support to help them succeed; and
  • Thrive when adults listen to them, respect them, and engage them in meaningful programs and activities.1

It takes time for adults and youth to fully embrace and create a culture and environment that will foster authentic youth engagement. This time of norming allows adults and youth to feel comfortable with one another, to agree on areas of importance, and to come to decisions that are agreed on by both partners.  While the idea is simple and the process laborious, the benefits of ensuring authentic youth voice and participation are invaluable for all.


Organizations Authentically Engaging Young People


voices_chicagoYouth in Research and Evaluation – Young people are engaged in activities that inform the planning, design, delivery, implementation, and ongoing evaluation of programs and practice designed by youth.

Voices for Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) is a youth organizing alliance for education and racial justice led by students of color from across the city of Chicago and Illinois. VOYCE believes that “young people who are most directly affected by educational inequity are in the best position to develop meaningful, long-lasting solutions.”

In 2007, VOYCE conducted an in-depth, year-long Participatory Action Research study on the root causes of the city’s 50% graduation rate.  More than 100 youth collected and analyzed data from 1325 student surveys, 208 student interviews, 110 teacher interviews, and 65 parent interviews.  The students found that to increase graduation rates, Chicago Public Schools must build a foundation for student success through district- and school-level policies and practices that foster trusting and supportive relationships with peers and school staff.

To learn more about VOYCE, visit


wide_angle_mediaYouth in Community Organizing/Advocacy – Young people are engaged in activities that influence the development and the implementation of policies, programs, and practices that address problems in their community.

Wide Angle Youth Media is a non-profit organization that provides Baltimore youth with media education to tell their own stories and become engaged with their communities. “Young people are often silenced by their age, but we [Wide Angle Youth Media] believe their stories are valuable and need to be heard.” Students learn to write, direct, and star in their own films on topics important to them, including:

  • Baltimore
  • Bullying
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Violence/Safety
  • Human Rights
  • Youth Identity
  • Public Transportation
  • Teen Parenting/Pregnancy

From 2010 – 2012, twenty different film festivals accepted nineteen of Wide Angle’s student films from states across the country and in Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Ten of these students’ films have received awards at film festivals.

To learn more about Wide Angle Youth Media, visit


youth_resourcesYouth in Decision-Making and Governance – Young people are making decisions about policy issues, programs, and practices that affect their lives, their peers, and their communities.

Youth As Resources is a youth-led and managed grant making, community organizing and leadership development organization that helps youth address the problems associated with living in poverty in their own communities. YAR is governed by a majority youth Board of Directors currently comprised of 25 youth (ages 14 – 22) and 4 young adults.

“We believe in using our power to change policies and practices that impact our community and institutions…by controlling philanthropic dollars to make grants to our peers to develop and carry out community organizing strategies that address the root causes of problems.”

Since its founding in 1994, YAR has completed 38 funding cycles, distributing well over a half a million dollars to 387 youth-led community strengthening projects and to support efforts for institutional change.

To learn more about Youth As Resources, visit