Can kids be leaders of the future or leaders of today?

Adults can work in partnership with youth to help them be the leaders of tomorrow as well as great leaders today.

One saying, often overheard among people engaged in youth development work, is it is important to teach leadership skills to youth because they will be “our leaders of the future.” While it is true many future leaders are in fact youth at the present moment, the notion inherently suggests youth do not have an important role to play today in leadership roles in communities, organizations and society. Subscribing to the idea youth are only leaders of the future, and therefore not of today, deprives youth of valuable opportunities to develop knowledge and skill and make meaningful contributions to society as engaged citizens. Beyond limiting the potential growth and development of individuals, it also diminishes the potential positive benefits that could be gained by adults and communities when youth are given authentic opportunities to share their valuable perspectives and engage and contribute to their communities as active and positive citizens.

The results of surveys of youth demonstrate that, in some Michigan communities, youth do not believe they are utilized as resources or given useful roles in their communities, nor do they have the perception that adults in the community value youth. The results of a survey of youth from Michigan’s Marquette and Alger counties, conducted in 2014 by the Great Lakes Center for Youth Development, indicated 29 percent of youth in the two counties felt that youth are given useful roles in their community, and only 25 percent of the youth had the perception that adults in the community value youth. These assets (youth as resources and community values youth) ranked as two of the least common assets reported among the 40 development assets identified by the Search Institute as being the “positive qualities that influence young people’s development, helping them become caring, responsible and productive adults.”

Through Michigan 4-H youth development programs and other community-based programs throughout the state, Michigan State University Extension has tools to support youth and adults working in partnership to help build healthy, strong communities, and to build leadership and citizenship competencies in youth. When youth and adults work together in authentic and intentional partnerships to develop a shared understanding of their community, and engage in sustained efforts for the betterment of their community, the benefits to youth, adults and communities are significant. They include the development of individual skills, the sharing of diverse perspectives and the development of relationships that strengthen communities.

Successful projects and community efforts utilizing the youth-adult partnership model lead to the development of social capital at the individual and community level. Social capital is defined within the Community Capitals Framework as reflecting “the connections among people and organizations or the social glue to make things happen.” The development of social capital through youth adult partnerships has benefits at the individual level, giving people access to networks and others who can help to achieve goals or collaborate on projects. The development of social capital through youth-adult partnerships also benefits the communities in which projects take place. Social capital, being one of the seven community capitals that are found in communities that are “most successful in supporting healthy sustainable community and economic development,” reflects valuable networks that can be accessed and utilized in efforts to improve social, economic, natural and cultural circumstances within communities.

Youth involved in Michigan 4-H Youth Development programming have many opportunities to engage in leadership roles at the club, community, state, national and international levels. For communities considering improvement and development projects, MSU Extension has many tools and resources that can be brought to community-based efforts across the state to support the development of youth-adult partnerships and community youth development efforts. Contact a member of the Leadership and Civic Engagement work team of MSU Extension for more information.

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