This podcast presents highlights from Sustainable Strategies, a one-day event organized by the Center for Court Innovation and Coro New York Leadership Center in September 2015. Representatives from 11 organizations discussed successes, challenges, and strategies used to meaningfully engage young people and elevate their voices in policy discussions through youth advisory boards. Members of youth justice boards also shared their experiences and insights with the group.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
This is Mary Walle from the Center for Court Innovation. And you are listening to the New Thinking Podcast. Today's conversation comes from Sustainable Strategies for Effective Youth Advisory Boards, a day-long convening of youth advisory board practitioners held by the Center for Court Innovation and Coro New York Leadership Center. Thanks to the generous funding of the W. Clement and Jesse V. Stone Foundation. What are youth advisory boards? They are small programs run by nonprofit organizations and government agencies that bring the voices of young people into policy work. Sustainable Strategies brought together youth advisory board practitioners from across New York City to discuss their work, to bring young people's voices and ideas into meaningful policy change.
In this podcast, you'll first hear from four experienced youth advisory board practitioners about how their programs operate, the challenges they face, questions they grapple with, and best practices to keep in mind when designing and facilitating a youth advisory board program. Then, four youth advisory board program alumni will share their experiences in these programs and the impact that membership has had on their lives. We'll start by hearing from Brooke Richie Babbage, the founder and executive director of the Resilience Advocacy Project. Here she discusses the mission structure and challenges of Resilience Advocacy Project's youth advisory board work.
Our mission is to empower youth to become leaders in the fight against poverty. We train young people in these spaces to identify social justice issues that they are passionate about in their communities, and then to develop concrete community impact initiatives in response to those problems, they spend a year becoming an expert on their campaign topic, and then every campaign culminates in an event, and the event is designed to bring youth and adult leaders into the same space to discuss and develop recommendations to push for change.
Brooke also discussed the challenges and tensions organizations may face when the youth participants, not adult staff, are by design in charge of the direction and the work of the program.
This level of youth leadership makes me uncomfortable. I believe in it, right? I started this organization. But the messiness of it, and not knowing before the citywide town hall meetings, what is going to happen at the end can make it difficult, both for me personally, and as an executive director to identify funding and resources and to know where our partnerships and work are going to go, because I am not the one picking the topic. How do you build a structure and build on successes when you're not in charge of that aspect of guiding the ship. On the flip side, I think that the work is much more diverse in ways that I don't know that our staff, who are deeply committed to youth leadership and quite frankly better at it than me, would even have paid attention to.
And it was really our youth leaders who were out there doing the recruitment that said, we also need to pay attention to things like age. The dynamic of a room where everybody's a senior, except for two people matters. That changes things and how we do work. We need to pay attention to the fact that a lot of young people have to work after school. So if in order to be involved, you actually need to be here two days a week, who are we then saying can't be involved without actually saying that. And that voice and that perspective came from our young people. So the fact that they guide our recruitment and the way that the body itself is formed, I think is very powerful.
Brooke went on to explore the challenges her organization faces in running a youth advisory board.
I just want to highlight a couple of the tensions or questions really, that have come out of this youth leadership work and the youth council in particular, again, against a backdrop of an organization that believes in leadership, but practices it in different ways. So the first is how does this group fit into our larger organizational programmatic and policy advocacy structure? There's a real tension between remaining nimble and responsive to what they say they are interested in and also running an organization, right? And having a program that is accountable for outcomes to funders. Second is infrastructure. So we want them to have a real system impact. How do we have a program that has a beginning and an end that has some kind of structure that is measurable, and that allows the participants to feel like they are achieving something. And yet is also acknowledging of the fact that if we're serious about them having a system impact, that takes longer than a year.
RAP's board has identified five core social justice issues around which we want to have an impact. What do we do if young people want to focus on something that's not on that list? And how do we guide their choice without making it not a meaningful choice. And then finally, who decides and enforces the rules of the group? You know, group work for those of you who do it is hard, is messy. You're striking the right balance between being adult experts and facilitators in a room, and also allowing the young people to grapple with the messiness of becoming true leaders is difficult.
Next we'll hear from Linda Baird, associate director of youth justice programs at the Center for Court Innovation and former Youth Justice Sport Program coordinator. The center founded the youth justice board in response to the realization that the young people the center worked with did not have a voice at the table where decisions were being made that would affect their lives. Linda discusses the program's goals and its challenges.
The goal of the program is to bring the voices of young people into policymaking, and have them be able to give their input on issues that affect them. We really try to caution young people. This isn't just a program where you say, I found all this stuff is wrong, that's too bad. But then we ask them to take the next step. And what can you do about it as a young person? What are your ideas to fix it? Because adults don't often hear these.
Building on Brooke's earlier, comments, Linda talked about how the program faced the realities of changing policy.
As everybody in this room probably is aware, the timeline for policy change... Unfortunately, I have not figured out how to make it align with a school calendar. So, we have thought about in our implementation phase, what we can do so that young people can have a few really credible, meaty projects that come out of that period. But even with adding a full extra year on the topic of study, we at the center realize that that doesn't necessarily mean the issue is wrapped up and that our work is done.
Brooke and Linda brought up many important questions to consider while designing and facilitating youth advisory board programs. Up next, Laura Jankstrom, youth action NYC program coordinator from the Citizens Committee for Children discusses how its youth programs are structured in response to similar questions.
The youth action community leadership course is the point of entry into the youth action program for interested students. So at the end of the 10-week course, the students are eligible to become youth action members. And this is the real youth-led sort of piece of what we do. These guys meet every week for a couple of hours on Wednesdays for the duration of the school year. And they pick the topics that they want to work on, and they pick the types of projects that they want to do. So for some of our projects, they want to stick to the sort of traditional. We want to research this issue. We want to create policy recommendations, and we want to meet with elected officials to educate them on what we found. They want to feel an impact immediately. They don't want to wait for the policy change to be made a year, two years, three years down the line.
And it's a lot of times difficult to follow an issue if it's not something that the news is really covering a lot. And so kids aren't seeing movement on them, I can't just send them an article and say, Hey, see, what's happening with the issue that we're working on. A lot of that is really done behind the scenes. So sort of an example I have, one semester we were doing teen mental health. And one of the recommendations that our group brought was that there should be a teen suicide awareness day in New York City, the following year Council Member Steve Levin introduced a bill that would make September teen suicide awareness month for the entire state and credited the youth action meeting that he took with sort of pushing him to introduce that bill. By that time, a lot of those kids were sort of moving on to greener pastures, but I did my best to reach out to them and say, hey, congratulations, you made a difference.
The final arm of sort of our three-pronged youth action program is peer trainers. So kids go through the training course. If they want to, they become youth action members. And then from that group, I pick about four students every year to become peer trainers. And they develop and facilitate workshops for other programs that are interested in civic engagement, advocacy, leadership, New York City government.
The final adult practitioner we'll hear from is Chris Neal, senior director of youth programs and initiatives from Coro New York Leadership Center. He discusses the pillars and breadth of Coro's youth programming and the importance of youth-adult partnerships.
One of the major pillars of our work is this notion of youth-adult partnership, which you've heard talked about today a little bit. And that's the idea or the work of young people working in partnership and collaboration with adults on common issues. I believe in youth voice, I love youth voice, but I'm also very clear about the role that we have as adults in the room. And that is to create the hooks for young people to hang their ideas on. So they have a number of ideas of lots of wonderful things they'd like to do, and our role sitting in the back, but leading from behind as Obama would say, is to provide those hooks. Well, maybe you might think about doing this, or have you ever thought about doing that? The other pillar of our program is probably youth in policy and practice.
So what does that mean? So youth in policy and practice means that over the course of our work, which is the last 10 years in working with youth councils, both in schools and across the city, we found that the area where young people have the greatest impact is on how policies are shaped, the decision making process, and then how they are implemented because we rely on and we spend a great deal of our time building the capacity of our young people to go out, collect data, collect the authentic voice and experiences of their peers and bring those back in meaningful ways so they can contribute to the decision making process or the implementation process of policy. So that is a fundamental part of our work.
Three years ago, Coro had one youth program and about 24 young people. Now we have three youth programs and two initiatives, and about 200 young people. So one of the biggest tensions, which you spoke to a little bit, Brooke is organizationally realizing that whether we want to think about it this way or not. We are a de facto youth development organization. Now we need to begin to think about what that means, organizationally.
A common theme identified by the practitioners was the challenge of convincing the youth advisory board host organization of the value of youth voice and figuring out how to integrate young people's ideas. Here's how Chris described that challenge.
Something I think we may have all run into is this notion of managing up. So the folks that are above you may not always understand the importance of youth programs and having youth councils in your agency. You might have to do a little bit of a managing up. I call it, this is the benefit of this program. This is why we need to have this. This is how it's going to improve our work. This is how it's going to make us have a greater impact because adultism is real. And a lot of adults do not think that young people have a place in policy practice and implementation. Like what are young people going to do? Or what are they going to do for this organization? Or how can we utilize them?
Now, we'll hear from young people on their experience as youth advisory board members, Bernadette, Stephanie, Alex, and Levi are alumni of youth advisory programs at the Center for Court Innovation and Coro New York Leadership Center. They first discussed how the program affected their growth as young leaders, and then offer their advice on how to lead and recruit for youth advisory board programs. Last they share how the experience impacted their lives.
I'm Alex. I think the Justice Board exposed me to a whole other world that I never really knew about.
I'm Levi. Coro allowed me to have unique access to the mayor's office and city government, which I think every youth should have some sort of access to. And I think that's a really eye-opening and really enlightening experience.
My name is Bernadette. YJB really influenced me in understanding a lot about policy and how it was developed and how it affects young people. And it definitely affect me. I thought that it just affected adults. Adults would just tell me what to do, and I would listen, but YJB really opened the door to see how everything comes down from the top and it trickles down to the bottom. I always thought a leader was the one who was at the forefront of everything. And I'm a shy person. Being in Coro exploring leadership there, I really found myself as a leader because of the fact that I can collaborate and communicate with different people.
My name is Stephanie. One main point for me, would be having to write recommendations and actually being accomplished at the end of the year. Another highlight was the presentation at Pace University. I felt like such an adult. It really exposed me to a world of people that I don't think I would've been talking to with the confidence I have now.
One of the topics the youth discussed was the qualities adult partners and program leaders should possess.
The relationship should not be I'm a program facilitator and you're a program participant. It's more like, okay, so we're working together on the same issue. And so understanding that that type of dynamic works best with young people, because a lot of people look at adults as authority figures, not as people who I can be equal with.
My facilitators would oftentimes step back. And they would say our job is to be a facilitator. It's not to be someone who is governing over the situation that is happening at the moment. Often times they left the room to let us sort of engage each other and not just sort of speak to the adult in the room, which I think does naturally happen because we're used to a classroom environment where we just respond to a teacher. So the facilitator is there to facilitate, but also to step back, but also to help us have access to them and to the multiple resources that they can provide us as adults.
Not only do we just focus on the program, but we always have check-ins with our facilitators. I think what works best is that the program itself is not based in a classroom style, both YJB and Coro Leadership is a circle. So everybody can see each other. Everybody get to talk to one another and it's discussion-based, it's not a lecture.
Youth advisory program alumni continued sharing advice about these programs, including how to recruit for them during the question and answer segment.
I think that if you relate it back to current events, and then relate the program to how it's affecting society today. I think that can definitely make people more interested,
You could also talk about skills that they will develop.
But I think maybe going in and into schools and recruiting people through the discussion of issues that are relating back to them would allow them to engage.
I would just say, get the message out to them that what they're doing is going to be beneficial, not only for them, but for future generations.
What is one thing that really surprised you about your experience in these programs? Is there something you kind of think differently now, when you thought, when you started.
Before I joined the Youth Justice Board, I never knew much about policy or criminal justice or police-community relationships. And it gave me the opportunity to learn about it. And not only to learn about it, to be an active member, do it and be involved and try to change it.
I joined the YJB in ninth grade, and that was very early for me, but it allowed me to enter high school in a completely different perspective. In the sense that I was able to, instead of just having this feeling, that I needed to keep my head down and do my work and do all these different things. I felt like I could understand the people that were in society that I walked by every day and took the subway with, and I felt like I had a closer connection to a community that wasn't my school. And I think that's really important because yeah, we could all be a class president or anything, but it's important to engage in the community, especially in a community as large as New York city.
In retrospect, how do you feel this work has impacted your life beyond the work in your council? How has it helped you maybe in school or with your peers, or can you speak to anything? You know, one thing that really resonated with you that you've been able to take away and apply in other areas of your life.
For me, two things, one, I am a founder of a new club called Dip, which is basically a diversity project. And so the main focus of Dip is to include people who you really don't hear about or backgrounds you don't really hear about. And for me, the second thing would be dynamics and how I was perceived the world and how other people would perceive the world and the things that I would do, or my tendencies. I think what allowed me in school is how to navigate with different people. Because you have the loud people and then you have the shadow people. And so how do I connect with them to make sure that the work is done?
Well, the Youth Justice Board taught me, it taught us practical skills, like time management, note-taking skills. It also teaches you responsibility, which is important cause... And I think I became more responsible throughout the program.
It also helps you connect to the real world. So for example, we did a lot of interviews last year with stakeholders and all these important people. But when we actually, as teens go out to the real world to apply for a job and get the interview, it helps us in that sort of way because now we are better at our speaking skills and communication skills.
This has been Mary Walle with the Center for Court Innovation. You've been listening to advice and best practices from youth advisory board practitioners and youth participants from Sustainable Strategies for Effective Youth Advisory Boards. For more information on the Youth Justice Board and the Center for Court Innovation, you can visit www.courtinnovation.org/YJB. For more information about the Coro New York Leadership Center, you can visit www.coronewyork.org. Thank you to the W. Clement and Jesse V. Stone Foundation for their generous funding that made this event and podcast possible. To hear more New Thinking podcasts, you can visit www.courtinnovation.org.