Youth Voice: It Matters
Guest blog post written by Maria Paredes, Highland Street AmeriCorps Ambassador of Mentoring (AOM) & Father Monan Fellow
Youth Voice is a trending topic but why? Why do various youth programs value and highlight the voices of youth? What is the value of giving youth a voice? Why was Emma Gonzáles, allowed to share her insights and why is it important? Schools supported all the youth who spoke during the March for our Lives, why? They believed in those youth that would share their thoughts better than anyone, and hence they stepped aside and allowed for the spotlight to shine on them. In my nearly three years experience with the Chica Project, an organization that empowers high school girls across MA, I’ve been able to experience Youth Voice first hand and most importantly learned why it matters. If I were to define Youth Voice it simply means to level the platform for youth to be able to speak by themselves and not through others. By creating a space of respect and not discrediting their opinion, it can be quite easy to achieve Youth Voice in any situation.
What are some ways to elevate Youth Voices?
At Chica Project, I have had the opportunity to interact with young women between the ages of 14-18. If I had to choose one takeaway from this experience is that unless a safe space is created, youth will not share any of their opinions. Young people need to know that they can be vulnerable without judgment.
Create a Safe Space
When a safe space is created, youth are encouraged to share their opinion. With practices and exercises like “Village Rules” or “Group Norms” are established, these safe spaces and expectations can be created. The purpose of using these are to create group expectations to encourage participants to feel comfortable within the space. Some examples are: “One Mic”, meaning only one person speaks at the time; “Step Up Step Back”, meaning for participants to be aware when they’ve spoken too much and when they’ve barely spoken; and, “Be Uncomfortable with the Uncomfortable”, meaning to take a chance by stepping out of your comfort zone as much as you want to.
Prioritize their Needs
Another way for young people to feel valued, is by listening. In the mentor trainings that I’ve facilitated, the number one thing I set out as an expectation is active listening. I explain to these potential mentors that youth mostly want to be heard and not to be seen as a human that “needs fixing”. I’ve learned that once a youth is comfortable with you, they will speak out and say “I need you to help me with something”, and unless that is said, 99.9% of the time they just want to be heard. In other words, young people do not want their problems to be solved, they just want to feel that their voice matters and is being heard. Recently in one of our sessions, a youth disclosed her sexual orientation because she felt comfortable enough in the space we’ve created. During that same session one of our mentors shared her sexual orientation and how that has shaped her identity; at the end of the session the mentor happily shared with me that the youth has asked for her number in order to communicate and ask for more guidance as she now identified her as a positive role model that she can comfortably talk to. One needs to also consider their audience, meaning you have to encourage multiple ways of communication. In the workshops I’ve facilitated, we tend to always keep in mind what are ways that youth would like to share their opinion, since not everyone will want do it verbally and/or in a big crowd. Therefore one should keep in mind to not only do activities that emphasize verbal discussion, but as well written and even body language. For example, by handing out a sticky note and having them write the answer instead of saying it out loud, you’re giving the power of anonymity and the comfort of expressive themselves in a different way.
When in Doubt, Ask!
When Emma Gonzáles shared her thoughts about gun violence, she was able to inform others why laws should be revisited. Through her narrative thousands of people have been educated about this topic, this is a reason why Youth Voice matters, because it is valuable. When in doubt on how to achieve Youth Voice, simply ask the youth you’re serving what they think. One should always keep in mind the youth and eventually your program will embody youth voice naturally.
Maria is completing her second year of service as an AOM at the Chica Project. Want to learn how you can become an AOM or know someone who would be the perfect candidate? Learn more here.