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Beyond "Youth Voice." Finding Liberatory Engagement.

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

The Headline

The term “youth voice” should be eliminated from the social sector’s vocabulary. Instead of trumpeting "youth voice," we should be building Liberatory Engagement into everything we do. The means are the ends.

The Critique

Youth and young adults (in this post, we are thinking of those between the ages of 16 and 24) have strong, powerful, and informed voices. Young people don't need adults and professionals to create opportunities for “youth voice.” (Yes, this will be in quotes throughout, because it is a fad term with a meaning that is indiscernible.) Young people need adults and professionals to create processes that reliably include them in meaningful ways and support their development. Every effort is strengthened by the infusion of lived experience expertise, and the collective wisdom that flows from combining lived experience and technical expertise.

Over the past decade, three things seem to be occurring more frequently in Santa Clara County’s social sector when it comes to “youth voice.”

  1. Nonprofits patting themselves on the back for "youth voice" when they are, in fact, doing the bare minimum in terms of gathering user feedback and/or co-designing with young people.

  2. Public systems and agencies calling for “youth voice” in a meeting or initiative, but failing to create space, resource, and time for young people to meaningfully and steadily engage in a mutually enriching process.

  3. Funders finding interest in narrative and policy change, yet (a) moving money through the same old organization’s where “youth voice” becomes a program rather than fundamentally infused throughout their operating structure, or (b) not adopting the generational investment strategy required to build power in a society structured to deprive specific groups of just that.

“Youth voice” is status quo maintenance masquerading as authentic partnership with young people. The current wave of nonprofit attention to “youth voice” seems focused on generating social media-focused content for marketing and fundraising, rather than durable attempts to bring those with the most to gain or lose into governance and/or co-creation. On the other hand, public sector calls for “youth voice” seem intended to create cover for decisions professionals are not ready or able to make, on the initiatives they’ve already have designed and planned.

The very words “youth voice” tokenize and further marginalize young people, as it imputes a shallow boundary for their participation – they are here to offer some vague “voice” on things already in motion. Being invited to contribute “voice” in groups established without your input, on activities that are mostly predetermined by people with very different life experience, in a room with folks who are there to do verbs like design, plan, implement, manage, govern, and decide lands squarely below the fourth rung on Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation. Aspiring to the higher rungs of that ladder will strengthen every inch of our social sector efforts - our community. Locally, we can look to the Office of Supportive Housing Youth Action Board and the Youth Liberation Movement* as groups of autonomous and resourced young people with lived experience that have the agency to choose when, where, and how they engage.

No business or public agency says they need “adult voice.” They do say they want market research, customer feedback, and constituent engagement. That’s fine, and if “youth voice” means those things, then we ought to use plain language and call it just that; these are valuable things we should do to strengthen our community. But if “youth voice” is used as a way of saying we share power or signaling system change, then we should do away with that phrase. That is to say, in either case, we should do away with “youth voice” because it doesn’t mean what it ought to nor what it could. We should call what we are after by its right name, so we can bring it into existence – youth-adult partnership, youth leadership, power sharing, co-creation, co-design. These are all good names for important things we ought to do more of more often.

Simple Ways to do Better

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funds the well-put together Youth Power website which is a great starting point to ground ourselves in the evidence for meaningful youth participation. The document Youth Advisory Councils: Eight Steps to Consider Before You Engage offers a solid starting point to anchor us in how we can move beyond the fourth rung on Hart’s Ladder. To move beyond the hollow, patronizing, and limiting fad of “youth voice” we might start by asking ourselves four sets of questions along the lines of:

  1. Is the nature of the question or the shape of the desired outcome fully baked before young people enter the room? What power will young people have to change the focus?

  2. How will those requesting the input of young people follow up with the young people from whom they have requested time and attention to share the results of their engagement? What does accountability look like for those requesting input?

  3. Is the structure of the meeting well-suited for young people to safely express themselves? Has appropriate thought been given to preparing and readying young people to participate on equal footing with adults? Have we, adult professionals, done the work (training + the internal self-reflection) to ensure we are ready to partner with young people in a mutually beneficial manner?

  4. How are informational asymmetries being addressed? Will young people have opportunities to create data that can challenge perception, which they own, control, or are free to use and interpret?

Toward Liberatory Engagement

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines LIBERATION as:

1: the act of liberating : the state of being liberated

2: a movement seeking equal rights and status for a group

To this, Cambridge dictionary adds:

1: an occasion when something or someone is released or made free:

2: used to refer to activities connected with removing the disadvantages experienced by particular groups within society

Young people, like all people, are seeking this kind of freedom – lives defined by equal rights and equal status where disadvantages have not just been eliminated, but made right. This begins with inclusion. In a statement attributed to Arthur Chan, “Diversity is a fact, equity is a goal, and inclusion is a practice.” We can be motivated to achieve diversity and aim at equity, but can choose to do inclusion.

What would youth-adult partnership look like if it were built to bring about justice and liberation? The National Equity Project defines liberatory design, which offers us imperatives to which we can begin to respond.

  • Racism and inequity have been designed into systems and thus can be redesigned;

  • Designing for equity requires the meaningful participation of those impacted by inequity; and

  • Equity-driven designs require equity and complexity informed processes.

Liberation begins with inclusion, an act and practice we can choose. And that requires we carefully structure our processes to not just offer token seats at tables we made for things we want to do, but rather to rebuild the table and reimagine who sits at it and how.


In our next piece, co-written by Youth Liberation Movement senior leaders, we will share a rubric with the core tenets of liberatory engagement learned through the three years of building and launching the Youth Liberation Movement.

*Courtney on the Groundwork team supports the Youth Liberation Movement with logistics and personalized coaching as a paid consultant, and Joe coordinates the Youth Liberation Movement’s Ally Advisory Council as a volunteer commitment.

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