Engaging Youth

It is essential to meaningfully involve youth throughout the development of your plan. Create a youth engagement strategy at the outset of the process and engage youth from planning through implementation.

As the real experts on their experiences, needs and interactions with organizations and systems, youth have unique perspectives on issues, are innovative problem solvers and can pose tough questions. Engaging youth will lead to more responsive and appropriate decisions to meet their needs.

From a human rights perspective, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) acknowledges the right of a child or youth to express their views, to be heard and to have their views given due weight according to their age and level of maturity. This promotes respect for children as active participants in their own lives and acknowledges their evolving capacity and gradual progression into adulthood. Further, it acknowledges the importance of a child or youth’s input to informing the decisions affecting their lives, at both an individual and systemic level. A Way Home is working with the COH and Canada Without Poverty to develop a human rights guide specific to youth homelessness community planning that will be launched in June 2016.

For information on engaging youth effectively, the Youth Engagement Toolkit for Youth Homelessness Community Planning produced by A Way Home and A Way Home Kamloops based on their planning process is available. Another resource is the Youth Engagement Toolkit Resource Guide, which provides useful guidance on engaging youth with diverse backgrounds. The Youth Voice section of the A Way Home website showcases the amazing work communities are doing to engage youth on the issue: http://awayhome.ca/youth-voices/.

The resource provides guidance on:

  • Establishing a clear framework and definition of youth engagement;
  • Defining youth engagement;
  • Outlining the characteristics, benefits and models of youth engagement practice;
  • Ethical considerations; and
  • Practical strategies to youth engagement, with special focus on those of diverse backgrounds (Indigenous, LGBTQ2S, newcomer youth, youth with special needs, young parents and youth in care or custody and experiencing homelessness).

Ethical principles of youth engagement

Effective youth engagement is undertaken in an ethical, respectful way. Tokenistic or superficial activities can make youth feel like they are not respected or involved. The following principles ensure youth engagement is ethical and effective:

  1. Youth engagement is not a program: Youth engagement should be viewed as a natural way of working in the ending youth homelessness initiative rather than as a special program.
  2. Contributions match the initiative: Young people and adults who are working with the planning group should be recruited for their knowledge, skills, interests and commitment to the initiative’s mission.
  3. One person cannot represent many: A young person should not be considered ‘the youth voice’ at the table – it should be acknowledged that everyone at the table brings different perspectives to the issue.
  4. Debate as a learning tool: Debate is a key element of personal and organizational growth. The initiative should foster an environment where ideas can be raised freely, challenged and valued.
  5. Dignity and safety: Under no circumstances should young people or adults feel that placing themselves in an emotionally, spiritually, physically or cognitively unsafe space is expected or required by the initiative.
  6. Avoiding false expectations: It is important to be honest about the changing role of youth as a result of their engagement in the initiative, including recognizing that there are limitations that correspond to age, experience, education and training.
  7. Balance and accessibility: Most people require workplace accommodations in order to support them in making the optimal contribution to their organization, including young people.

When thinking through your youth engagement approach, consider how you can facilitate:

  • Opportunities for skill development and capacity building;
  • Opportunities for leadership;
  • Reflection on identity;
  • Development of social awareness;
  • Mutual ownership;
  • Positive youth-adult partnerships;
  • Organizational support; and  
  • Achievable goals are celebrated.

Ways of engaging youth

Be reflective of the level of participation you are creating through your approach; Roger Hart’s Ladder of Young People’s participation outlines various levels you can assess your proposed approach against. Note that the first three steps are non-participation (adapted from Hart, R. (1992). Children’s Participation from Tokenism to Citizenship.)

Figure 7: Hart’s Ladder of Young People’s Participation

Figure 7 - Hart's Ladder

Youth engagement can be incorporated into plan development in many ways; the practical suggestions below were developed with a focus on the youth plan process based on the Youth Engagement Toolkit.

Governance and policymaking: Youth can take part in key organizational decision making by serving on the steering committee or working groups. Youth can also participate in policy making, allowing their input to shape the policy agenda advanced in the plan.

Advice and guidance: Youth can offer their insights into different issues concerning the plan through youth advisory councils or youth forums. Youth can provide regular input to the planning team, can work on specific projects or can identify community needs and suggest service improvements.

Organizing and planning: Youth can help design and plan projects in lots of ways including determining service needs, developing action plans, conducting community outreach and evaluating outcomes.

Activism and outreach: Young people can work with the planning team to organize community members around issues. Youth often know how best to recruit other youth to get and stay involved.

Communication and media: Youth can help communicate key messages around the plan to the public by contributing to press releases, facilitating public forums, creating newsletters or using alternative media to tell a story.

Fundraising and philanthropy: Young people can become involved in raising and giving money through fundraising efforts. They can also become involved as volunteers during the plan development process, contributing particular skill sets to the effort.

Research and evaluation: Young people can contribute to research and quality improvement efforts by contributing their feedback. They can also be involved as evaluators and researchers by interviewing other youth or community members, working with staff to analyze data or presenting it to stakeholders.

Common strategies communities have used to involve youth in developing their youth plans include:

  • Ensuring your representatives are part of the plan steering committee;
  • Encouraging a youth-led approach – create space for youth to generate ideas and take leadership roles in consultations;
  • Working with existing youth groups to gather information, seek input on solutions and confirm plan direction;
  • Creating space for dialogue on personal experiences and solutions with youth separate from broader tables though focus groups and/or individual interviews;
  • Ensuring youth are invited, welcomed and supported to participate in public forums, conferences, roundtables, etc.;
  • Providing access to multiple means of communicating input – including social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.);
  • Ensuring an accessible, safe space for consultation;
  • Providing incentives and recognition for participation; and
  • Ensuring representation from key populations of youth – particularly Indigenous, LGBTQ2S, immigrant youth, etc.

Note that you may experience pushback or even false impressions as to the level of previous/existing engagement. Service providers may report they engage youth all the time or very often, but when you probe this further, there may be few providers who have empowered youth in this way.

It’s important to consider this as you build the infrastructure for engaging people with lived experience. Also, and possibly because of this, there may be pushback from agencies (or one’s own staff) to engage youth, but you have to take a leap of faith and dive in: the payoff is huge as long as the underlying motivation is to flip the power structure and have those that should be leading playing a significant and substantial role (versus tokenism).

Engaging Youth in Edmonton

In Edmonton, youth were immersed in the plan development process in a unique way. Homeward Trust asked youth-serving agencies to identify and recruit youth who were experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless. Homeward Trust provided participating youth with $25 honoraria in recognition of their expertise and time.

To ensure the 20 youth could access the consultation space, the downtown library was selected as the location for the dialogue. After an initial presentation outlining key concepts addressing youth homelessness, the youth were divided into small tables to discuss:

  • What has stopped you from getting housing, healthcare, legal aid, school and jobs?
  • What has helped you get housing, healthcare, legal aid, school and jobs?

In a perfect world, what do we need to end youth homelessness?

  • Youth input was synthesized along with the broader stakeholder consultation to develop the plan’s priority directions. Youth also led guided neighbourhood tours for broader stakeholder groups to help shed light on their daily realities. The youth-led tours were viewed as a catalyst for youth empowerment and a unique opportunity for youth to be at the forefront of service planning.

Before taking on these tours as a youth-led activity, Homeward Trust consulted with youth-serving agencies to determine the feasibility of the idea and identify any potential ethical issues. In preparation for the tours, four weekly meetings were held to develop the walking routes, personal narratives and ideas of how to address systemic issues and barriers. Meetings also resulted in trust and relationship building between Homeward Trust and youth and amongst youth. To incentivize and support participation, youth were provided with dinner, transit tickets and a $125 honorarium.

To be inclusive of those youth who wanted to participate and share their stories through alternative mediums, Homeward Trust offered the opportunity to share their viewpoints through Photovoice, which combines photography with community development and social action. Youth represented their perspectives by photographing scenes capturing the realities of youth homelessness. Again, youth were supported through honoraria and bus tickets to participate.

To help youth frame their story, we asked youth four questions. For each question, the youth took one photo and provided a written response.

  • What places or things have meaning to you and that you think are important to youth around issues of youth homelessness?
  • What are places you feel safe and don't feel safe?
  • What are places and things that you would like to see changed?
  • What does a 'home' mean to you?

For examples of the work produced by youth using Photovoice, see yegyouthstrategy.ca. 


Table 20: Practical Youth Engagement Tips

Tips on Practical Youth Engagement
Youth-friendly Meetings Consider providing food, transportation andchildcare.

Break the ice. Provide lots of opportunities for group members to get to know each other (ice breakers, check-ins, etc.) and personalize the experience.

Send out meeting reminders via a combination of text, email, phone call and social media sites, e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

Provide paper, pens and other materials to promote full participation.

Keep resources for youth so that they do not have to carry binders of information with them to each meeting.

Provide items for youth and adults to play or draw with as some people struggle to concentrate without them.

Youth-friendly Materials Consult with youth and get their ideas on how to catch young people’s attention.

Use straightforward wording and keep it brief.

Use examples and stories to emphasize key points.

Use tables and graphs to summarize points.

Include interesting quotes and consider pulling these points out of the document.

Be clear and descriptive with your titles and headings to help focus the document.

Provide details about where to find more information.

Make documents available online.

Ask youth to help format and design the layout of the document.

Incentives Cash honorariums/gifts or gift certificates – the amount given will depend on the type and length of meetings and involvement.

Transportation – youth may not have the financial resources to cover transportation costs so it’s a good idea to have a ready supply of public transit tickets or to provide the transportation directly.

Childcare – some youth may be parents and require funding to cover childcare costs.

Food/refreshments – sharing food is a great way to build relationships and helps out many youth who may be having difficulty making ends meet.

Non-financial incentives include job experience, mentoring, references and letters of support.

Creating Safe Spaces for LGBTQ2S Youth Have a clear and consistent set of rules that draw boundaries of behaviour and respect, creating a safe and protected space for all.

Use proper gender pronouns that the youth identifies with.

Put up posters showing racially and ethnically diverse, same-sex couples or families, LGBTQ2S friendly stickers and symbols posted in offices or doors (e.g. safe zone stickers, rainbow flag, etc.)

Provide at least one universal, gender inclusive or gender neutral restroom, so that people are not faced with the issue of choosing the right or wrong bathroom

LGBTQ2S Toolkit is an excellent resource for more information relevant to this.