Lessons from Hampshire College: Young People as Equals

This weekend a colleague and I went to Hampshire College’s 23rd annual conference, “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice”.  It’s the third time I’ve attended, and as before, it re-energized me for another year of working to secure a just and healthy life for every woman and girl.

Ashley Gadson and Chino Rios, of Quest, a project of Out Now, Victor Bernhardtz, a member of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and now with UNFPA, and Karyn Brownson, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Health Initiative, lead a session on youth participation.

The session’s discussion revolved around how to involve young people as leaders and equal participants in the sexual and reproductive rights and health movement. One of panelists pointed out that unlike race, gender, sexual orientation, or any of the other labels that invite discrimination, being young is something we all once were. It is one of few types of discrimination that all people have likely experienced or were at least vulnerable to at one point in their lives.

Yet, even organizations with a mandate to work with young people continue to struggle to do it well and in a meaningful way.  Case in point:  all the session participants were asked to raise our hands if our organization had a youth member of their Board with equal voting rights.  Not all hands went up.  Below is a spectrum of meaningful youth participation to assess how well your organization is doing. *This information is taken from Karyn Brownson’s handout, which is based on Sherry Arnstein’s work.

Varying degrees of meaningful youth involvement:

  • Youth control: when youth create, plan, staff, and run an organization or project.
  • Delegated power: when segments of work in an adult-run organization or campaign are turned over to youth who have responsibility, accountability, and decision-making power.
  • Partnership: an adult-youth collaboration that leads to meaningful responsibilities and involvement for youth.

Degrees of youth “tokenism”:

  • Placation: when a few “exceptional” youth are chosen to participate and expected to represent the entire constituency, giving the illusion of youth involvement. For example, when a young person is appointed to attend a Board meeting with little or no training, support, or voting power.
  • Consultation: a step towards youth involvement, but insufficient if organizations stop there. Consultation usually involves information gathering, for example, a focus group or an adult-controlled needs assessment when young people are given no power over how the information is used.
  • Informing: a first step in youth involvement, but is often conducted as top-down, one-way communication. For example, a youth outreach campaign where young people do not provide input and cannot meaningfully dialogue about the campaign.

Non-participation youth involvement:

  • Therapy: a therapeutic intervention masked as youth-initiated involvement particularly youth involvement initiatives whose unacknowledged goal is to change young people’s behavior.
  • Manipulation: when youth are involved in a campaign for the purpose of building an organization’s reputation, receiving funding, or creating materials with images of youth on them etc.

Susanna Smith is the Program Officer for Communications at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *