Successful youth-adult partnerships on boards and committees

Five reminders for adults making organizational decisions in partnership with youth.

Youth-adult partnerships can be defined as the process for bringing youth and adults together as equals in decision-making through community groups, councils, boards and committees. 4-H Youth Development believes strongly in the power of youth voice and the benefits that come from decision-making through youth-adult partnerships. Engaging youth with adults in decision-making builds life skills in youth, adds creative ideas to discussions and builds a sense of community within and outside of decision-making groups.

Youth-adult partnerships, however, may not come naturally and take practice and patience to develop a solid partnership over time. Consider this list developed by the Innovation Center of five principles for adults to remember when making organizational decisions with youth:

  1. Don’t expect more from a youth than you would from another adult. When meetings are in progress, adults readily excuse other adults for responding to a text message or checking their phones, citing that, “It must be important,” but adults may be quick to judge youth for doing the same. Remember that youth and adults have other important things happening, and don’t expect more from youth than you would from a fellow adult.
  2. Treat young people as individuals, don’t ask one youth to represent all youth. “Tokenism” can be a hurdle to an authentic youth-adult partnership. Just like you wouldn’t ask one adult to represent the views of all adults, avoid doing the same for youth. Youth can only provide their individual perspectives and ideas, and can’t speak for all of their peers.
  3. Be careful about interruptions. Remember that most youth spend most of their days in a classroom, where they must raise their hand to be recognized and ask permission to use the restroom. Most adults don’t function in this type of environment and may be quick to jump-in on the conversation at hand before giving youth a chance to share their ideas fully.
  4. Remember that your role in the partnership is not to parent. While parents may be part of the same group as their children, when they are serving on these decision-making entities, youth and adults should come to the table as equals. Consider the setup of the room and potential challenges or advantages if youth and their parents sit together during the meeting. Youth may find strength in their voice by sitting next to their peers instead of their parents.
  5. It’s OK to ask for help when you don’t know how to do something. While some adults may be used to being the most knowledgeable one in a room of youth, it’s OK, and in fact encouraged, to admit you’re unsure of the next step and work together with youth to figure it out. This builds problem-solving skills in youth, a skill that will carry into their future.

Michigan State University Extension staff members are able to provide training on this and other topics related to building youth-adult partnerships. Contact for more information.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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