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Developing a Youth Engagement Strategy

Written by Brandy Davis, Senior Trainer at PCMH & Paige Backlund Jarquín, Training Director at PCMH

At Partners for Children’s Mental Health (PCMH), we work to improve the lives of youth. We care about youth.  We want youth to thrive. But despite our best efforts over the past several years, we knew something big was holding us back: there was no seat for youth at our decision-making tables. As Roger A. Hart said, “Children are undoubtedly the most photographed and least listened to members of society.”

In any organization that aims to improve the lives of people, it’s critical to hear the voices of those served.  

We lacked the input and opinions of those we are trying to serve. We lacked the voices of those with lived experience. We needed to change that.  

In the summer of 2021, we set out to develop a meaningful partnership with youth consultants. Two incredible youth, Stacey Adimou and Jose Flores, were hired to join our team for the summer. They had one specific task: help PCMH develop a youth engagement strategy.  To do that, we asked them to examine the current youth-serving community in Colorado and identify what best practices were in place.

As we embarked on this journey, we had high hopes that this Youth Engagement Project would be a learning opportunity – for PCMH staff and for the youth consultants. In the end, it truly exceeded our expectations. In just a few months, we learned so much from Stacey and Jose. 

For the purpose of this post, we narrowed those learnings down to five: 

1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Invite youth that are already engaged in youth advisory work to guide future work and invite wisdom from other youth-serving organizations.

We know we aren’t entering into unique work.  There are many youth-serving organizations in Colorado and beyond that have identified some of the best ways to engage youth. We partnered with several of these organizations to help guide this initiative. 

Prior to onboarding the youth consultants, we worked with Youth MOVE Colorado to evaluate our organizational readiness to invite youth into our organization. We also partnered with the Young Aspiring Americans for Social & Political Action (YAASPA) to recruit youth who were experienced interns and consultants. Bringing on youth experts who were already navigating this work in the community was important to us. 

We leaned on the youth consultants and the community to inform and inspire our youth engagement strategy.  In doing so, we learned that Colorado’s youth and youth-serving community, built over decades of hard work, had an abundance of wisdom to lend to our work.

2. Pay youth for their lived experience and expertise.

As you read that, you may have thought, “Well, adults were all youth once… they have lived experience!”  And while you’re right, the challenges of each generation of youth are varied.  In 2021, youth are navigating things that other generations of youth didn’t have to navigate:  COVID, virtual school, social media (what is YikYak anyway?).  The experiences of today’s youth are unique to them. And understanding those experiences is critical to the work we do.

Many organizations pay youth for their opinions and work, but some don’t. This summer we learned that paying youth in “experience” (like access to a mentor, exposure to a career) isn’t enough. Jose and Stacey helped us understand that when they engage in additional activities that support the work of adults, their preference is to be compensated financially for their time and expertise.  

Throughout the summer, the consultants engaged with countless adults who are getting paid to share and advance their passion. We learned that paying youth for their lived experience and expertise is a way to create equity.

3. Setting youth up for success requires that you actively question the unwritten rules of your organization.

We made two mistakes early on. First, we assumed how much time it would take for our consultants to complete a task instead of asking them how much time they would need. Second, we assumed that youth who grew up with iPhones and TikTok would have experience with the same technology we had. 

On the first day of the program, we asked the youth to send calendar appointments in Outlook. We assumed it was a simple task until they shared that they had never sent an Outlook calendar invite. We needed to pause and teach them that skill, and they needed time to practice and to be affirmed that they were doing it correctly.  The use of technology is just one example of unwritten rules or procedures that may need some interpretation to set youth up for success. In order to engage the youth in collaborative work, we have to pause, question the unwritten rules, and learn how to set them up for success.

4. Experience dictates how people perceive success; youth are no exception.

Stacey and Jose made a major impact on our organization in just a few months, but they didn’t exactly see it that way.

Our aim was to make shared decisions with our youth consultants about how PCMH would engage youth.  From the PCMH team’s point of view, we did that. Jose and Stacey didn’t see it the same way. From their point of view, we gave them assignments and informed them about our work. At the end of the program, they told us they didn’t see major changes in PCMH as a result of their contributions. 

At first, that blew us away!  When we gave it more thought, we realized it made perfect sense. While we took their advice all along the way and made changes as a result, we didn’t explicitly name those changes we were making. 

Here’s what we learned: they had nothing to measure their outcomes by. They needed to hear what was changing as a result of their advice.

We know, as adults, that changing a business model is a significant lift. 

For youth who had nothing to compare it to (no real “before” experience), they saw their contribution as less significant than it was. In reality, we are changed as an organization because of the experience we had with Jose and Stacey. 

5. Adults need to share their knowledge and experience; youth have the same need.  In order to hear each other, adults must diffuse the power dynamic that exists between adults and youth.

As adults, we want to tell our stories and share our wisdom and often we feel we deserve the power and privilege to do so. At times, being in a seat of power compared to youth may feel quite normal, even comfortable.   

What we learned this summer was that in order to really hear the knowledge and expertise of youth, we needed to diffuse our power. When we diffused our power and privilege,  Stacey helped us to understand what tokenism and decoration looked like when we were quiet enough to hear her stories and help her feel safe to share them.  Jose helped us to understand how professional standards might perpetuate harm when we were willing to follow his lead.  

Certain actions of adults can hold youth back from sharing their experience. We say “talk to me” or “I’m listening”, but proceed to do anything but listen. When adults dominate the conversation, it’s hard for youth to feel heard. One way adults can diffuse their power and privilege is to learn to really listen. 

These lessons learned were only the tip of the iceberg; we know we have a lot more to gain from an ongoing partnership with youth. That’s exactly why Stacey and Jose recommended we build a PCMH youth advisory council and helped us apply for grant funding to support it. 

We’re excited to share that we’re committed to making that recommendation a reality.  What’s more exciting is that Jose and Stacey have agreed to lead the youth advisory board in its inaugural year, including recruiting twelve youth to work alongside them.  

This feels like a great beginning to an even greater story.  Stick with us as we build this, together.

Thank you to all of our partners who shared best practices and supported our Youth Engagement Program, including Dr. Janiece Mackey and her team at Young Aspiring Americans for Social & Political Action (YAASPA); Kippi Clausen and her team at Youth MOVE Colorado for helping us measure success by implementing the YVAL assessment.  We also want to thank the numerous youth-serving organizations who offered guidance, expertise, and their time, including these listed below.  We learned so much and we are glad to share this journey with you.

Youth Celebrate Diversity

Project VOYCE

Robbie’s Hope

City and County of Denver




Colorado Youth Congress 

COLOR Latina

A Precious Child

Colorado State Youth Council

NAACP Youth Council of Aurora

One Colorado

West Slope Youth Vote

Metro Denver Pace Program

Denver Grid

Boys and Girls Club of Colorado

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