Highlighting Youth Voice

Any organization that works primarily with youth will shout the value of youth voice from the rooftops—but what does making space for youth voices actually look like in practice?

Be present in community.

“Create spaces for conversation … Stop reading and researching, and get to know the youth in your community by being in front of them.” (Youth Survey Participant)

First off, young people want you to meet them where they’re at—in their schools, communities, and on social media. Being present, they shared with us, is the easiest way to encourage youth to engage with your organization and the work that you do, because it demonstrates that you care enough to show up and make an effort. Meeting youth where they’re at also helps eliminate barriers—such as access to transportation, or anxiety about new spaces—that might prevent them from engaging if you ask them to come to you. 

“Using the networks that already exist is the biggest thing. … Is there a youth group that’s really good at getting people engaged? Okay, reach out to them. Work off of other people’s work and the networks that already exist, and build off of those.” (Youth Interview Participant)

If finding ways to be present in youth spaces sound daunting, the good news is that you likely won’t need to start from scratch! There are many groups out there that already work with youth in these spaces, and can help you reach out. Take universities as an example—they’re a guaranteed gathering space for young people, and campuses or campus groups are often more than willing to help facilitate visits from community employers, organizations, and service providers in the interest of their students. As a bonus, engaging through existing channels means that youth will feel more comfortable, and will therefore be more likely to participate than if they received an invitation out of the blue. Leaning on schools, libraries, community centers, etc., can only be of benefit!

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • When looking to reach out and make connections with youth, identify the spaces where they already spend time or are comfortable, and meet them there. 
  • Connect with organizations who are already working with the youth you want to engage, ask for their support, and utilize their networks. 
  • Get involved and maintain visibility in your local community. 
  • Build your social media presence…
    • Create accounts on the platforms that are most-used by young people, such as Instagram and TikTok (hint: Facebook isn’t cool anymore!)
    • Use social media to tell youth why your field/work/service is relevant to them, and what it looks like to engage with you
    • Work to ensure that your online presence is accessible to all users by including things like image descriptions, and making sure that text is screen-reader friendly. Online guides like this one can help point you in the right direction
    • Have someone who understands social media and who is confident connecting with youth run your accounts—bonus points if they’re a youth themselves!
  • When organizing events for youth… 
    • Choose a location that considers potential barriers in accessing transportation. Alternatively, organize free, accessible transportation specific to the event and advertise it well in advance
    • Make it free! 
    • Promote it on social media, and through existing networks such as school email lists, community bulletin boards, etc.
    • Have snacks and drinks available for free to all participants


Listen, and be Open to Change.

If you’re planning to engage youth, make sure that you’re going into it with the right intentions—and with the capacity to follow through. If you’re bringing youth onto a project or into an organization simply to say that they’ve been consulted or to make you look good, then you shouldn’t be engaging young people; that’s tokenism (for a quick overview of tokenism, see this piece written by one of our Youth Advisory Group members). Youth are more than aware of situations where they’re being tokenized, and you’ll certainly have trouble maintaining their involvement or their trust if you aren’t taking the time to properly listen to and act on what they’re saying. In the words of one of our survey participants, “engagement for engagement’s sake can impede meaningful engagement down the road.”

“I was asked to speak at a board trade meeting, and everything I said, they were like, ‘no, youth don’t want that’ – and they started talking smack about youth. And I’m like, these are literally things have come out of youths’ mouths … if you’re trying to grow your business and if you’re trying to encourage young people to work with you and work for you, these things don’t add up.” (Youth Interview Participant)

“The person leading the meeting would specifically say, oh we haven’t heard from you yet. What’s your opinion? It was such a confidence builder to be able to point to someone and say well, what do you think about that? And even if they say yes, I completely agree, and that is all they say, that is okay because it has told them that their voice in that space matters, and feeling that your voice matters in a space is how you become comfortable in a space and how you grow.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Many organizations engage youth with the main goal of bringing in a fresh perspective, someone who thinks about the world in a way they might not have previously considered. For that fresh perspective to be useful, however, you have to first make space for it to be heard, and then choose to follow through by making real changes. The youth we spoke with had no patience for arguments of “it’s always been done this way” —something they’ve come up against far too often—and the majority identified jobs and experiences where they’d explicitly been asked to contribute their opinions, and seen them actioned, as being overwhelmingly positive. The way things have always been done, in a world that is constantly changing and evolving, just doesn’t work, and in many cases, has excluded a significant number of people. We can, and should, be striving for better. 

“Not that you have to implement everything youth say, but being open to it and being okay to try some of those things, because I think sometimes a lot of people are like, ‘I’ve owned this business for twenty years and I know what I’m doing – I don’t need to listen to this new perspective.’” (Youth Interview Participant)

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Create intentional spaces for youth to voice their thoughts and opinions—whether that means setting up regular one-on-one check-ins, larger group meetings, surveys, or having frequent, less formal conversations, make sure that youth know it’s their space to share, and that you want to hear what they have to say.
  • Engage in a meaningful conversation and act on what you’re hearing! Following through shows how much you value youth voice, and lets youth see the impact their voice has had. If you’re truly unable to act on what youth are telling you, be honest about why, and have a conversation about possible alternatives or compromises. 


Include youth in decision-making.

Including youth in decision-making processes is another important step in highlighting youth voice, especially when the decisions being made will directly impact youth, but also across the board. Only half the youth who responded to our youth survey said they were involved in their organization’s decision-making process, and only a third said that they felt their voice (or vote) held equal weight to that of an adult—and yet, the majority felt most valued when their opinions were taken into account, and taken seriously. Ensuring that youth are heard throughout the decision-making process will help them feel welcome and like their voices matter, ensure that the decisions being made support youths’ further engagement, and create more effective and sustainable decisions by increasing the diversity of perspectives involved. 

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • If your organization works with youth in any capacity, make sure that youth are present on your boards, committees, and advisory groups. 
    • If you don’t already have an advisory group or something similar, consider forming one! To start thinking about what that might look like for you, and what a youth advisory group could offer, check out this blog post about the CEI’s Youth Advisory Group (who helped us build this framework!)
  • When making decisions about projects or your organization as a whole that will impact the youth you work with, ensure that those youth are informed, consulted, and given the opportunity to voice their opinions. 
  • In situations where voting happens more formally, make sure that youth are included in the vote, and that their votes hold equal weight.

Involve youth in program development.

Similar to decision-making, youth should be involved in helping develop programs that are intended for their participation; a favourite saying among youth-serving organizations is ‘nothing for us without us.’ Not only will programs designed with youth involvement better meet the wants and needs of youth, but it’s clear from our conversations with youth and youth-serving organizations that young people will be more engaged in programs they’ve helped design and have some degree of ownership over. 

Working with youth in spaces where program development, decision making, or other complex conversations are happening—particularly with lots of contributing partners—there’s always a possibility that you’ll come up against pushback (not everyone is as open to having youth at the table). When you’re bringing youth into those spaces, being prepared to support them through that potential pushback is important. If adults in the room are being dismissive, overbearing, or even aggressive, try your best to call out and mitigate that behaviour in the room, but also ensure that you’re finding time to debrief with youth afterwards. In scenarios like these, you’re their advocate!

“In this meeting, this youth worker would start to say no I think we should do this, or this, and was starting to talk over youth … it was to the point that they were starting to get a little bit aggressive. And so I kind of left it and had a debrief with youth afterwards, and had a conversation with people involved, and then the next meetings after that were okay, but kind of de-escalating post-meeting and then understanding that yeah, this may happen, and saying that this wasn’t okay, but how can we go past this.” (OES Interview Participant)

With programs that are past the development phase, being willing to adapt and shift based on what youth are bringing forward is also an important piece of responding to and highlighting youth voice. The quote below, from one of the youth-serving organizations we interviewed, is a great example of pivoting programming to respond to youth needs—youth communicated that they needed support to be able to use a resource to its fullest extent, so the organization was able to shift their program to better align with that need.


“We ran a lunch and learn program two years ago and so we had sessions already lined up, we had speakers lined up … we were giving $20 gift cards for each session that youth attended, and as we were going through it, one of the youth said, ‘well this is really great that you’re doing this, but I have no idea how to use this in the right way … I want to be able to eat healthy, but I don’t really know how to do that.’ And so we decided to change our last event to eating healthy on a budget. We were able to pivot based on the needs of youth, and because of that, youth felt validated and like, oh, what I said mattered.” (OES Interview Participant)

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • When designing programs for youth, start by asking youth what they want to see, and then make sure they have a seat at the table throughout the development process.
  • Once programs have launched, look for continuous feedback from youth, and be open to adapting existing programs based on what they say. It’s never a bad thing to take a moment to pause and re-evaluate! Receiving ongoing feedback doesn’t mean you’ll need to completely reinvent your programming three months in, but it does mean you’ll be able to make small shift that better reflect your participants—for example, offering a transportation stipend if youth let you know that paying for the bus or for gas is a key barrier in their participation; or, shifting your program timing if it intersects with the end times of local schools.


Support youth-led projects.

Another amazing way to highlight youth voice is to support youth-led projects. Making space for youth to pursue something they’re passionate about can produce some truly wonderful results, and lead to significant learnings for everyone involved. 

“They let me take the lead for my projects and let me learn how to start a project from the beginning and follow it all the way to the end, and how to present that project to people and how to present my ideas … and I think that is something that a lot of jobs don’t really give you. Like, they might give you a lot of practical experience of like this is how you write this article or something but they don’t give you the chance to develop those skills that you need when you are going into the workforce.” (Youth Interview Participant)”

It’s important to note, however, that just because a project is youth-led, adults can still play an important role. Chances are, youth may not have all the skills or information they need right off the bat, and adult support can serve to better prepare them for what they have planned. How much or how little support a youth may need is largely individual, but having that conversation and figuring it out together will mean a great deal.

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Encourage youth to take ownership over the projects they’re tasked with and allow them the freedom and trust to do so. 
  • When possible, offer youth the chance to design and implement their own projects from beginning to end. You can find examples of what that could look like spread out across this framework—May’s Queer(ies) podcast, and our YAG blog-posts and infographics. Other organizations the CEI works with have also shared the value that youth-led projects bring to their workplace, allowing youth to dive into things they’re passionate about and share those with their colleagues and each other. 
  • When supporting a youth-led project, offer support to help youth succeed—this might look like offering feedback during the planning phase, helping the youth make connections, supporting research, offering funds, or helping them identify and build the skills they’ll need to make their project happen. The best way to determine what supports to offer, as always, is to ask the youth—they know what they need better than anyone else!
    • See the first subheading under our framework section on Youth-Adult Partnership for more tips and strategies on knowing when to offer support, and when to step back.

Make space for peer-to-peer learning.

“I think it was really great to be able to see the kind of work that my peers were doing and be able to learn from them because I think sometimes learning from fellow students or people who are very similar in age … they are able to really relay that information in a meaningful way and it I think it made the experience a little less isolating.” (Youth Interview Participant)

“You learn a lot from the people around you, so if you have those peer opportunities and that peer mentorship and are able to engage with the people around you, that is going to make your experience as a youth, in my opinion, a lot easier to walk into and then also you are going to get more from it.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Peer-to-peer learning is something else that youth identified as having a positive impact on their experiences interacting with organizations, either as employees or otherwise. They spoke about how primarily adult organizations can sometimes feel isolating, and how connecting with other young people in those spaces helped them feel another level of support. Being able to talk to someone closer to your own age, in a similar stage of life, is really helpful when you’re processing all of the new experiences that come with employment, or with accessing services. Having the space to figure things out together and share learnings with each other will result in increased confidence and comfort, and support skill and knowledge building among the youth you engage with.

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Create spaces for the youth you engage with to engage with each other—whether that looks like regular youth-specific gatherings, a Teams or Slack channel where youth can connect, or opportunities for youth to share their learnings. 
    • At the CEI, our summer student interns participate in Communities of Learning, where they spend a few hours every other week listening to one of their peers present on a subject they’re passionate about. It’s a youth-led space that’s received wonderful feedback from the youth we work with!

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