Giving youth a meaningful voice at the table

Tips for strengthening youth voice in meetings.

Michigan 4-H Youth Development emphasizes youth-driven decision-making and program planning. Often times, decisions related to program planning are made in monthly project-based advisory group meetings. When youth are asked to attend and provide input at these meetings, adults are occasionally frustrated at their perceived lack of participation in the meeting. Adults can improve the incorporation of genuine youth voice in these mixed environments of youth and adults through intentional planning of meeting structure and dynamics. Follow these tips to strengthen youth voice at your next meeting.

  1. Make meeting times youth-friendly. Ask youth when they can make it to meetings and stick to a set ending time. Saying that meetings end at 8:30 and then letting them run until 10:00 means that youth who might have been planning to complete homework assignments after the meeting have to make a choice to stay later or go home and complete homework. In addition, youth often have after-school commitments and transportation concerns for which they need to make arrangements.
  2. Learn everyone’s names. Use name tags or table tents to help meeting participants refer to each other by their names, rather than the standard, “hey you.” This helps make all meeting participants feel more comfortable and allows the meeting facilitator to ask for input from members of the group by calling them by name.
  3. Create a trusting environment. Use icebreakers and team building activities to build trust among group members. This can be done at the start of each meeting or at the beginning of the year in a retreat-type format. These activities will help meeting participants see each other as partners rather than as solely “youth” or “adult.”
  4. Position youth to be successful. Sometimes youth’s physical placement in the room can make an impact on their level of participation. A variety of room set-ups may help strengthen youth voice, including: encouraging youth to sit together, moving youth to the front of a classroom-style room, or intentionally asking youth and parents to sit separately.
  5. Don’t ask one youth to represent all youth. In the same way we would never ask one adult to represent all adults, avoid asking one or two youth to represent all youth. A true youth-adult partnership involves equal numbers of youth and adults in decision-making. One or two “youth representatives” in a group are an example of tokenism and should be avoided.

Finally, remember that when youth provide ideas or suggestions, it’s important to listen, build on their ideas and give them a try. Sometimes youth ideas seem “outside the box” for adults, but giving youth a chance to try their ideas can bring renewed energy to a group. Even if ideas fail, the learning process that takes place in moving an idea into action is paramount. The Michigan State University Extension Leadership and Civic Engagement work team can provide further trainings and resources to strengthen youth-adult partnerships in 4-H organizations and communities. Contact us at

Did you find this article useful?