Creating a Youth-Centered Culture
“ The changes required will be not only in our organizations but in ourselves as well…. Only by changing how we think can we change deeply embedded policies and practices. Only by changing how we interact, can shared vision, shared understandings and new capacities for coordinated action be established.“
– P.M. Senge
This section is for youth-serving organizations that are striving to create a youth-centered culture for positive youth development.
It includes guidance on elevating the voices of youth with lived experience, genuinely partnering and collaborating with youth and collectively adapting to changing environments.
This not a checklist, but a collection of frameworks, best practices and reflection activities to meaningfully partner with youth to build communities where they can thrive.
- Centering Youth Voice
- Assessing Commitment to Youth Voice
- Building Trust
- Effective Communication
- Leading Through Change
Centering youth voice
Young people have a right to inform the systems of care that are designed to support them. Adults have a responsibility to create safe and equitable avenues for them to be involved as true partners.
Research shows that to improve systems of care for young people, we need to hear directly from them.1,2,3,4,5,6
First, that requires elevating their voices and listening to their stories, perspectives and ideas. Encouraging youth voice also demands that we equate lived experience with valuable knowledge and expertise, recognizing that the best theories and practices emerge from this first-hand wisdom. The space for youth voice and lived experience should welcome all races, genders, sexual identities and abilities.
Second, centering youth voice requires dedicated platforms for youth to meaningfully assess, advise and make decisions about the systems that affect them. Young people should be integrally engaged in every aspect of needs assessment, design, planning and implementation of new, expanded or improved services.
Genuine dedication to understanding the perspectives of young people can:
- Reveal new, accessible and culturally responsive approaches to supporting youth mental wellbeing.
- Expose gaps and challenges in systems of care in various stages of youth development.
- Foster a sense of belonging and commitment to service to the community among young people.
Meaningful youth-adult partnership requires a critical look at how we invite young people to collaborate. A genuine commitment to being youth-guided and youth-driven involves a culture where adults:
- Value the unique perspectives of youth and trust their potential to lead and meaningfully contribute.
- Recognize and challenge personal and systemic biases about youth including the intersection with race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion.
- Adapt adult-centered policies, procedures and work styles to include youth priorities and preferences.
- Step back and sincerely welcome young people into decision-making with appropriate support.
- Drop the dichotomy of success versus failure and focus on opportunities for learning and growth.
Collaboration with youth occurs on a spectrum and a partnership can take many forms, from collecting input from young people to youth and adults working as equal partners. Involve youth by empowering them while protecting them from being manipulated, tokenized and/or used.
Be intentional in adopting a wide range of ways to involve youth and nurture partnerships best suited for each of your youth partners, yourself and your organization. Begin by asking your youth partners how they want to be involved and empowered and offer your own ideas and options. After reaching a consensus with all who will participate, continue revisiting this discussion throughout the partnership.
Use Hart's Ladder of Youth Participation as a guide to help you define roles for each of your youth partners.7
Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation provides a visual framework to assess and improve the way youth and adults engage and partner together. Using it as a resource for both assessment and aspiration, you can ask yourself:…
- What rung best describes our current level of engagement and partnership?
- If it is one of the bottom three – manipulation, decoration or tokenism – how might we immediately move up the ladder?
- Since we can jump rungs, how might we rapidly work toward rung 7 (youth initiate and lead) and rung 8 (shared decision-making)?
Assessing Commitment to Youth Voice
How do I assess my agency or group's commitment to youth voice?
A first step to creating a more youth-centered culture is reflecting on your current commitment to elevating youth voice.
Validated assessments are useful to start a collective and reflective process of understanding your commitment to youth and young adult involvement. They can be used to conduct a formal analysis or they can help guide a series of informal discussions. Reflecting on your commitment to youth voice: 8
- Promotes a shared vision for success between youth and adults.
- Identifies your agency or group’s strengths and areas for improvement.
- Creates a baseline measure with standard indicators.
- Moves organizations toward sustainable youth engagement.
When reflecting, consider not only your own perspective, but also the perspectives of the youth you aim to support, your team and/or staff, your group or agency’s leadership and your community partners. Involving different perspectives will paint a more accurate picture of your path to a more youth-centered culture.
Remember, we are never finished growing into equitable partners. Leading through change, building authentic partnerships and empowering others to act are not competencies that can be mastered. They are adaptive skills that build upon compassion, creativity and courage. Use this assessment process to take an honest look at the ways you have effectively elevated youth voice and the actionable steps you can take to improve.
Using a Validated Assessment
Youth MOVE National and Pathways Research and Training Center (RTC) created two validated assessment tools to measure commitment to elevating youth voice.
Youth Voice at the Agency Level (Y-VAL)
A survey to assess commitment to youth voice at youth-serving agencies and organizations.
Youth Voice on Committees AND Councils (Y-VOC)
A survey to assess commitment to youth voice on committees, councils, task forces, coalitions, etc.
The Y-VAL uses eight critical themes, and the Y-VOC uses four critical themes to assess support for the meaningful participation of youth and young adults in advising and decision-making. 9 Use the themes to identify ways you can empower youth voice at your agency or in your group.
[Graphic will be provided by the National Council for the following content. Please use this as placeholder]
- Commitment to meaningful participation
- Formal policy
- Culture of partnership
- Structure for Involvement in decision making
- Structure for broad engagement
- Access to decision makers
- Clear roles
- Assessment of participation efforts
- Collaborative process
- Respectful partnering
- Youth- and young adult-friendly meetings
- Information sharing and communication
- Transparency in decision making
- Sufficient and consistent representation
- Appropriate representation
- Support for thorough preparation
- Support for meaningful participation
- Leadership development
- Dedicated staff time
- Addressing barriers to participation
- Stipends and incentives
- Participation in hiring
- Staff training
- Responsive staff evaluation
- Peer roles
- Programs and practice models
- Improving services
- Engagement and retention efforts
- Cultural responsiveness efforts
- Respect for youth and young adult culture
- Feedback on services
- Participation in evaluation activities
- Responsiveness to feedback on services
- Transparency regarding evaluation
- Support for initiatives led by young people
- Funding for initiatives
- Control for funding
Meaningful relationships require mutual authenticity, respect and trust. Youth-adult partnerships require a shared commitment to courage, vulnerability, transparency and dedication. In fact, adults can help youth feel safe to express themselves by modeling these qualities.
When we invite young people to collaborate, we often ask them to share their personal experiences, challenge the status quo and/or generate ideas. These profound responsibilities require intentionally protected and supportive environments that inspire authenticity and creativity. Environments that instill trust emphasize emotional and physical safety, empowerment of underrepresented voices and shared norms and values. When creating spaces for collaboration, ask young people what would be best for them.
During the CONNECTED initiative, we found the following practical strategies helpful when creating collaborative environments:
- Translate written materials into the first languages of everyone participating and arrange for an interpreter when together.
- Create shared norms and ground rules for meetings and revisit them frequently.
- Start meetings with icebreakers that allow everyone to share something about themselves.
- For calls, encourage video calls but empower others to decide for themselves (e.g., video on/off, call vs. text/chatbox).
- Use text message or direct messages on social media to communicate instead of email.
- Offer food, fidget toys and/or coloring sheets during meetings.
- Use stickies and/or flipchart paper for interactive discussions that get everyone moving around the room.
- Have frequent breaks and use them for a quick game, some stretches or a dance party.
- Identify a private space or virtual “hallway” (e.g., a virtual breakout room or an alternate line) in case someone needs time to decompress alone or with someone they trust.
- Do something fun, like play ping pong, after a big day.
Beyond creating fun and genuine spaces for collaboration, build individual connections with your youth partners.
Young people need and deserve to have trusted and caring adults in their lives; yet, one in five young people report having none.10 Overwhelming research shows that strong developmental relationships have a positive impact on youth development. They are protective factors that help reduce the effects of stressful life events while promoting social and emotional competence to thrive in all aspects of life.
Building trust takes time, but you can do it with each individual interaction. Find a personal approach that feels authentic and comfortable to you and create space for them to do the same.
Use the Search Institute’s Framework for Developmental Relationships to intentionally reflect on ways you can strengthen relationships with youth and young adults while also supporting their positive development. Each relationship will look different depending on the type of relationship, age and personality, culture and the community context and circumstances.11
- Be dependable. Be someone I can trust.
- Listen. Really pay attention when we are together.
- Believe in me. Make me feel known and valued.
- Be warm. Show me you enjoy being with me.
- Encourage. Praise me for my efforts and achievements.
- Expect my best. Expect me to live up to my potential.
- Stretch. Push me to go further.
- Hold me accountable. Insist I take responsibility for my actions.
- Reflect on failures. Help me learn from mistakes and setbacks.
- Navigate. Guide me through hard situations and systems.
- Empower. Build my confidence to take charge of my life.
- Advocate. Stand up for me when I need it.
- Set boundaries. Put limits in place that keep me on track.
- Respect me. Take me seriously and treat me fairly.
- Include me. Involve me in decisions that affect me.
- Collaborate. Work with me to solve problems and reach goals.
- Let me lead. Create opportunities for me to take action and lead.
- Inspire. Inspire me to see possibilities for my future.
- Broaden horizons. Expose me to new ideas, experiences and places.
- Connect. Introduce me to people who can help me grow.
A youth-centered culture means adults accept that youth have important and unique perspectives that can push adult conversations beyond their frames of reference and comfort zones.12 Re-imagining systems of care that support positive youth development involves creating holding environments for uncomfortable conversations, listening actively to different perspectives and sharing in a way that others can hear.
In the “Building Trust” section, we covered fostering environments for effective collaboration. We create these spaces to hold open and honest discussions.
In a holding environment, groups can address challenging topics safely. Active listening is an essential tool for creating holding environments and persevering through dissent to a shared understanding. With active listening, we seek to understand.
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is hearing the significance of the message being communicated and responding with intentional inquiry. It is listening with genuine curiosity, pondering and asking purposeful and open-ended questions.
We can listen in multiple ways and different situations call for different levels of listening – The 3 Levels of Listening. We strive to consistently reach level three, but levels two and three are skillsets that take practice to develop.
Level 1: Internal Listening – Listen to Speak
When listening, you think of how the message relates to you and how you will respond.
Level 2: Focused Listening – Listen to Hear
When listening, you put yourself in the shoes of the speaker and relate to them.
Level 3: Global Listening – Listen to Understand
When listening, you focus on what the speaker is saying and also what they mean.
Asking the Right Questions
Depending on your role in listening and the goal of the conversation, ask open-ended questions to explore perspectives and ideas. Invite further discussion by paving a path with intentional questions. As you consider creating discussion questions, ask yourself:
- What do I intend to achieve by asking this question?
- Will this question invite or restrain responses?
- Is this question likely to stimulate fresh thinking?
- Do I have an answer in my mind when asking this question?
- Are my own assumptions embedded in this question?
There are many types of open-ended questions you can use to facilitate a discussion with another person or a group. Use them to create your own questions to drive conversations and explore new ideas.
- Are encouraging and non-threatening.
- Invite further discussion.
- Are useful for beginning a session or opening discussion.
- Give the respondent latitude in what information they choose to share.
- "Tell me more about that…"
- "What else happened?"
- Help gain understanding of a term or concept.
- Move from the general to specific.
- Check your understanding of what is said.
- "What do you mean by 'always, every, never'?"
- "What does 'unreasonable' mean to you?"
- "What don’t you understand?"
- "Who specifically doesn't care?"
- Help gain understanding of the respondent’s reasoning.
- Encourage reflection by the respondent and understanding by the questioner.
- "How did you expect this to turn out?"
- "What leads you to that conclusion?"
- "When you use the word ‘safe,’ what do you mean?"
- Ask these instead of asking "why?" since they are less confrontational.
- Help gain understanding of the other person’s interests, assumptions, fears, expectations and priorities.
- Help shift the respondent's thinking to what they are trying to accomplish.
- Gets to the heart of the matter – a person’s values, fears, needs, etc.
- "What concerns you about…?"
- "What do you most want me to understand about _____ that you don't think I understand?"
- "What is the best/worst that can come from this?"
- Challenge a person’s line of reasoning.
- Create a shift or change in a person's position or point of view.
- "Gently" challenge incongruities in a person’s behavior, position, interest, etc.
- "You say you’re interested in my suggestions, but I notice you turn away when I start to talk. What’s going on?"
- "On the one hand you say… on the other hand…"
- Generate alternative options.
- Develop new ideas.
- "What is one thing you could do to accomplish that?"
- "How else might that be done?"
- Reality-test a possible situation.
- Explore the outcome of a choice or behavior.
- Examine the consequences of a decision.
- "How does that suggestion meet your criteria for fairness?"
- "What would that be like for you?"
Asking intentional questions and collaborating with different perspectives will reveal dissenting opinions, attitudes and beliefs. This is a necessary first step to forming a shared understanding of the problem and vision for the solution. At times, discussions with dissenting opinions will become high stakes and/or filled with strong emotions. Whether in a group or between you and another person, these types of conversations require careful attention to find a mutual purpose and understanding.
Turning Conflict into Connection
At the heart of most ambitious transformations lie crucial conversations, those that have high stakes, opposing opinions and strong emotions. When these three conditions arise, you have entered a crucial conversation, a term and model for healthy conflict coined by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.15
When stakes are high, opinions vary, emotions run strong and casual conversations transform into crucial ones. Too often, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well. The consequences can be severe for relationships, organizations, change efforts and our own wellbeing.
Yet, when we have effective crucial conversations, we deepen our relationships and create space for the large transformations we aim to achieve.
Healthy, effective crucial conversations demand safety and bravery in relation to both the content of the conversation and the conditions that contain the conversation. While staying committed to safety and bravery, the crucial conversation model suggests five dialogue goals:
- Find a mutual purpose.
- Create a shared pool of meaning.
- Share your own path.
- Explore others’ path.
- Strengthen the shared purpose and meaning through agreements and commitments.
To learn more, check out our Turning Conflict into Connection handout that offers in-depth guidance on effectively communicating before, during and after a crucial conversation.
- Increasing Student Voice in High School Reform: Building Partnerships, Improving Outcomes
- Constructing a Holding Environment from Fuller Seminary
- The Three Levels of Listening
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.
Leading Through Change
A youth-centered culture is created and sustained by listening to youth, acting on their guidance and partnering to create the change they seek. It involves a genuine willingness to transform the way we think about youth development and the systems of care that are designed to support their mental wellbeing.
In a world where frequent unanticipated events and circumstances are the norm, it is critical to maintain your commitment to centering your efforts around the youth experience. Help your team create and stay focused on a shared vision, pace change to regulate distress and communicate openly. Here, we introduce two theoretical frameworks to lead collective change while supporting social justice: adaptive leadership and emergent strategy.
Adaptive Leadership Supports Complex Change
Adaptive leadership is a model for leading through complex, transformative and evolutionary change. It includes mobilizing a group of people to overcome challenges by fostering a shared commitment to success. The model helps groups collectively identify problems, interrupt the status quo and innovate to find solutions. It is particularly useful when leading the changes needed to create a youth-centered culture at your organization.
Adaptive leadership distinguishes between two types of problems:15
- The problem is clearly defined.
- Perspectives are aligned (everyone sees the problem the same way).
- The solution to the problem is clear and relies on knowledge and technical skill.
- Example: Identifying the social media platforms local youth use to communicate with each other.
- The root of the problem is unclear.
- Legitimate, yet competing perspectives emerge (people see the problem in different ways).
- The solution to the problem is unclear and relies on innovation and learning.
- Example: Increasing youth attendance and engagement in local programs and services.
When differentiating between a technical problem and an adaptive challenge, ask, “Does making progress on this problem require changes in people’s values, attitudes, beliefs and/or habits?” “Will it challenge people’s status, power or identity?”
“Yes” to either question means the challenge is adaptive, not technical. Technical knowledge and skills and professional power or identity that once made us successful will need to be reframed and retooled to overcome adaptive challenges. An adaptive leader tackles that reframing and retooling head-on by relying on an array of adaptive skills based in creating shared values, commitment and accountability.
You will face many adaptive challenges as you deepen your youth-centered culture. As a leader driving collective change, you can use those adaptive challenges to transform systems of care for young people.
The following graphic describes specific adaptive leadership skills for complex transformation:16
- Leaders need to know how and when to step back and take a long, broad view like from a balcony.
- Rising above the immediate details (or chaos) to remember where you are heading overall.
- Noticing the nuances, alliances, trouble-spots and dynamics that are best observed from a birds-eye view.
- Rather than standing in the middle of the action, the balcony view allows you to see a fuller picture.
Adaptive work is complex and nuanced. There are many different, equally legitimate perspectives, neither the problem nor its solution is clear, there may be many ways to interpret the change and it may require deep shifts in philosophy, power, responsibilities and behavior. Adaptive leaders cannot merely make the decision; they must channel the shared vision and encourage deep understandings and collaborative resolutions of the adaptive challenges embedded in the change.
Deep and meaningful adaptive change may be challenging, chaotic and stressful at times. Those tough conversations, strong reactions and uncomfortable experiences open doorways to real shifts in perspective, beliefs and actions. Adaptive leaders balance shifting dynamics and keep people engaged in the hard work necessary to achieve the transformational goal. They emphasize safety while encouraging just the right amount of challenge and discomfort so people can speak and listen to deep truths.
Similar to Kotter's buy-in and empowerment,17 adaptive leaders engage employees in discussing, planning and executing changes that should be within their control. Adaptive leaders make clear decisions and allow employees/team members to consider and find solutions that best fit employees' needs and accomplish the overall goals.
Adaptive leaders listen to those with varying perspectives and to the courageous individuals who may warn that actions are incongruent with stated intents. Adaptive leaders support brave voices who are willing to call out discrepancies when they see them.
Emergent Strategy Supports Human and Social Justice
In Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, adrienne maree brown captures the power of imagination and vision and uses profound lessons from the national world to propel personal, relational, community and systemic transformation. It can be a powerful frame and set of tools to create lasting and deeply felt youth-centered cultures since it emphasizes relationships, learning and adapting as the core vehicles for change.
Emergent strategy demands internal practice within us and within organizations, as well as an external collective strategy for social justice. Understanding relationships as the vehicle for change, emergent strategy derives transformational power from consistent and iterative conversations, connections and learning. Visions, ideas and actions build on each other, deepening and growing with each iteration. The point is to pursue critical depth rather than mass, since change happens one person, one idea at a time.
Emergent strategy embraces the following core principles:18
- Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small.)
- Change is constant.
- Be like water as Bruce Lee describes it, “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
- There is always enough time for the right work.
- There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
- Never a failure, always a lesson.
- Trust the people. If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.
- Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass – build the resilience by building the relationships.
- Less prep, more presence.
- What you pay attention to grows.
- The Practice of Adaptive Leadership
- Leading Change: An Action Plan from the World’s Foremost Expert on Business Leadership by John Kotter
- Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown pages 41-42
- Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown pages 41-42