Challenges to youth-adult partnerships and strategies to overcome them

Youth-adult partnerships sound great, but can be met with barriers when it comes to decision-making. Consider these strategies to overcome the challenges.

On paper, decisions shared between youth and adults are a great, inspiring, important thing. Shared decisions are one of the top steps of Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation. As with most great concepts, the actual execution is full of challenges and barriers that make you wonder if those researchers and academics have ever been in front of a board meeting where adults are ready to throw in the towel and bump the membership age back up to 18. But fear not, Michigan State University Extension is here to help with field-tested solutions to some common stumbling blocks!

  1. Youth won’t attend meetings. Create an environment that supports youth; get to know them, make them feel safe and comfortable, ask for their ideas and implement them and you may find youth will make it a priority to attend. Conversely, if you invite youth to attend a meeting where the culture is very adult-driven, they may not return. For example, if a meeting is scheduled to end at 8:30 p.m. but regularly runs late until 10 p.m., a youth probably won’t return for fear they won’t have time to complete their homework and they don’t want to be rude and leave early. It’s true youth are often very busy between school, after-school activities and homework, but they also have opportunities to make decisions about how they want to spend their time.
  2. Meetings are all business and not enough fun. Contrary to popular belief, youth are driven by more than having fun. Youth get excited about making a difference and sharing their voice just like adults. Sometimes, however, fun is necessary. Michigan 4-H Youth Development embraces a club meeting model that suggests 4-H meetings should include elements of fun, business and learning. Organizations of any type can benefit from this type of model. Infusing a little fun in meetings will make them more enjoyable for everyone, not just youth, and give everyone more energy to focus on the important tasks at hand. For more information, read “What happens at 4-H club meetings” by MSU Extension’s Janelle Stewart.
  3. Youth have ideas that are too wild. Adults that tap into the creativity and out-of-the-box thinking of youth may find their own decision-making processes and programs will benefit. The unique combination of youth creativity and adult wisdom is what makes youth-adult partnerships work.
  4. The process for making decisions will be unclear. Organizations that embrace youth-adult partnerships include a process for decision-making in their bylaws. Youth bring interesting perspectives to decision-making, often without the baggage and history that adults bring to their decision-making processes, and a true partnership with youth embraces equal roles in decision-making with adults. Youth and adults can share equally in the good outcomes and occasionally negative consequences from those decisions and learn together.
  5. Adults will stop participating when they lose control. While it’s true that youth-adult partnerships embrace a model of shared decision-making authority, which can feel like a loss of control to adults, adults are often motivated by the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of youth and may find their purpose for attending meetings even more valuable than before.
  6. It will take too much time. It’s true that teaching someone else to do something often takes more time than doing it yourself. However, assuring others in the organization and especially the next generation understand the necessary intricate processes ensures the organization’s longevity.

The key ingredient to creating a new and different environment that supports shared decision-making with youth is acknowledging just that—that it is different! Groups must move past old habits in the status quo if they want to reap the benefits of youth-adult partnerships.

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