5 more ways to overcome barriers to youth engagement

Rebecca Reyes and Malana Rogers-Bursen

Group of people standing together.Many of you are already working to try to engage more young people, and no doubt this is a step in the right direction. But, you may be running across challenges  you haven’t found solutions for yet. We've expanded our list of challenges and possible solutions to continue to overcome barriers to youth engagement.

Did you miss the first five challenges and solutions?

Challenge #6: Transportation

Young people may not have a car they can use on a regular basis, or even a license. Your recruitment efforts won’t be successful unless they have a way to travel to the meeting place.

Possible solutions:

  • Schedule meetings and events in locations that are easily accessible by public transportation.
  • Consider meeting spaces at a local school or college campus, or at least within walking distance of one.
  • Set up a carpool system.

When inviting people to meetings, be sure to let them know up front how you’re addressing transportation issues. That way, people won’t decline a meeting invitation based on the fact that they might not have a car.


Challenge #7: The same young people are always invited

It’s easy for existing group members to invite their friends or family members to a meeting. Often times this is the most effective tactic to boost membership. However, if you’re not intentional about inviting a diverse group of people, it’s easy for the group to be homogeneous.

Here’s an example: You’re trying to include more young people in your effort, so group members ask their children to join. If there are two generations of members, they likely share the same or similar background. While you may recruit a lot of enthusiastic young members by asking their children to join, you won’t be adding to the diversity of the team if you’re not recruiting young people in other ways.

Even if group members aren’t related, sometimes the same young people are consistently invited to be a part of community events.  Here’s an example: you regularly reach out to a student government group at a local college to recruit young people. This is a logical place to recruit – the students are motivated enough to participate in extracurricular activities, and they are likely interested in civic engagement. However, only reaching out to the most obvious group means that you may not bring much diversity into your team.

Possible solutions:

  • To make space at the table for different youth perspectives, reach out to local schools, colleges, community centers, youth groups, and other places where young people are.
  • When reaching out to student and youth groups, don’t stop with student council and student government. Have you reached out to the Black Student Alliance? The statistics club? Tutoring services?
  • In addition to getting recommendations from adults, also ask the young people in the group to suggest someone to join the effort. This gives young people a voice in decision-making even before they come to your meeting.


Challenge #8: Allowing young people to try something that didn’t work in the past

It would be impossible to follow up on every idea people proposed. However, many times adults quickly dismiss ideas because “we’ve tried that before.” Young people are more likely to suggest things that have already been tried since they were not around to hear about it the first time. When we invite young people to come to the table, we need to also make space to express their ideas and opinions.

Possible solutions:

Give everyone a fair chance to explain an idea. Perhaps once you hear more details you’ll discover that it’s not exactly the same as what’s already been tried. They may have a different way of implementing the idea. Or, the timing might be better and there’s a good chance it will successful at this point.

If you listened to the idea but still don’t think it would be in the program’s best interest to implement it, be sure to explain why. Simply saying “no” without an explanation can lead to misunderstandings. They might think that you’re dismissing the idea just because of their age, experience, skills, etc.

Make sure you’re honest about why you don’t want to implement an idea. If it is clearly not aligned with your program’s goals, or if there is a significant barrier such as funding, say no after you’ve sincerely listened to their suggestion.

On the other hand, if you were responsible for a similar project that didn’t work out in the past, make sure your pride doesn’t affect your opinion. Instead, be a mentor and have a conversation about challenges you faced in the past. In hindsight, you may have implemented your idea in a different way. Be open about what you learned from past attempts so other people don’t make the same mistakes. And if you work together, you can share the success.


Challenge #9: Young people may not be aware of unspoken norms

Many of the norms your group follows likely come from working with groups of adults and/or work settings. Young people have limited experience in both of those areas. This can have an impact on things such as what experience to highlight when applying for a position, how to format emails, understanding what certain terms mean, or how to interject in a discussion.

Possible solutions:

Sometimes we perpetuate certain norms just because we’ve always done it a certain way, even if it might not be the most efficient way of doing things anymore. Be open to new ways of doing things. Having new people in the group can be refreshing and can help you work more effectively, so take advantage of this opportunity. It might be helpful to develop group norms together for things like how to run meetings or how to communicate with each other.

It may be helpful t ask young people if and how they’d like to get up to speed on the topics of conversation or how things are run. Make some suggestions, but let them decide what they think will work best. And, some may feel that they don’t need any guidance at the moment. Here are some ideas you could run by them:

  • Before moving on to a new topic, ask if people who haven’t talked yet have any additional questions or comments.
  • Set aside time just after the meeting to answer questions people might have about terms or logistics.
  • Pair up a young person and a more experienced person to be “buddies.” Young people can have the opportunity to learn more about the topic or how things are run, and those who are more experienced can gain a better understanding of the perspectives of young people.


Challenge #10: Understanding how young people can contribute

The idea that young people don’t have as much to contribute as adults is ingrained in our culture. And as adults, we often perpetuate the same things adults told us when we were young. Young people of all ages can make a contribution whether they go to school, work in a grocery store, or are a small business owner.

Think of your grown daughter, son, niece, or nephew. You knew them as a child, and now that they’re a young adult, it can be easy to fall into old habits. Now that they’ve grown up, it may be hard to transition to allowing them to make decisions on their own without your judgment. And, you may find that you treat other young people in a similar way even if they aren’t your family members.

Possible solutions:
Change your frame: instead of thinking that young people are at a deficit because they don’t have much experience, start seeing the opportunity for young people to build skills at a young age by contributing to your efforts.

We all have things to learn; young people and adults can learn from each other. As with any group member, find out what they’re good at and challenge them to take it to the next level. If they are on the debate team, perhaps they’d be interested in helping to develop messages. If they are technically savvy, they may be able to help with some of the technical logistics of an event.

Treat young people like they can be leaders as they are. Recognize that they can be leaders now, even though there is still room for growth.Think about it: even students as young as middle school could have experience that would be valuable to your effort. Some play sports, compete in music contests and speech tournaments, run for student government, or organize volunteer events. They are already leaders; this is just another opportunity to strengthen those skills.

Share your challenges and solutions for engaging young people on Facebook or Twitter @EvDem.


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