Guest Blogger

Why do we leave our youth out of our youth work?

Filed By Guest Blogger | September 25, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: gay teens, gay youth, Greg Varnum, lesbian, lgbt youth, National Youth Advocacy Coalition, NYAC, teens, youth advocacy

Editors' note: Greg Varnum is the acting Executive Director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.

I find that there is one key ingredient often missing from the planning that goes into youth projects and youth advocacy work...youth. Most folks I work with agree that when an organization does LGBT work, it's good to have some LGBT folks around to help provide input. For some reason, that doesn't carry over into how some people and organizations do their youth work.

One of the root causes behind several failed youth initiatives has been the lack of youth involvement in the actual planning of the initiative. It's disappointing to me to see the amount of resources that are put into wonderful ideas to support and engage LGBTQ youth that are essentially wasted when the organizers don't get the response they were hoping for. Sometimes the missing piece is something rather small, could have been easily addressed and jumps right out at a young person. Often times when I'm told that engaging young people is a waste of time or too unmanageable to do, I discover that the person's experience has mostly been with these types of "doing work on behalf of youth" projects.

When I was working on a college campus with LGBTQ youth I had stacks of brochures and educational materials collecting dust. One day I handed a safe sex brochure to a student who took one look at it and said, "It looks rather old, I can't imagine the information inside is up to date." I assured him that it was actually a new piece and that the information was accurate. The 1990's style photos and design they used for this brochure was its fatal flaw. I spoke with the organization that produced it later and they admitted that the only people who had reviewed it were health professionals in their 30's and 40's - who were surprised at the negative response rate they'd been receiving.

When I bring this up with folks they respond that they thought they did have youth involved because someone at the table was in their late 20's or early 30's. I'm a few months away from my 26th birthday, and something I've had to come to terms with this year is that I am no longer in the category of "youth." I can relate to that desire to say we're in touch with that "youth" mentality well into our 30's...but it just isn't so.

One of my favorite responses has been that people were simply too busy doing work on behalf of LGBTQ youth to take the time to hear what LGBTQ youth actually thought of the work they were doing. That's almost like saying you're too busy driving to stop and get gas. We need to think of involving youth in the work we're doing on their behalf as a vital ingredient to the planning process.

There have been a number of successful projects that have gone years without having direct youth involvement in the planning process. I certainly can't argue with their success, but I'm very confident that their projects would be even better and more effective if they took the time to engage youth in their planning. And no, responding to their feedback, surveys and comment cards isn't enough. Having a token youth present, who has no real input or influence, is closer...but still not quite there.

The National Youth Advocacy Coalition recognizes that involving young people in planning your work is easier said than done. Over the coming months we'll be developing and collecting some resources to help organizations effectively engage young people in their planning efforts. We're also working on providing resources to the young leaders who engage with organizations. Our hope, and the hope of many LGBTQ youth, is that the next time you find yourself having a conversation about helping LGBTQ youth there will be a young person there working with you.

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Excellent piece. And though this comment relates to an age group above that discussed in the post, I think the same concepts apply. Everyone is freaking out about the increased HIV infection rate in young men--usually discussed as men in their 20s and early 30s. (Do teens not have sex anymore? Or will they quit having sex if we pretend they don't?) And yet I see very little commentary or material on the subject that is generated by men in that age group. Mostly what I read are denouncements of unsafe sex practices delivered by older people. I doubt there's any way to make that approach effective, as the numbers seem to bear out.

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | September 25, 2008 1:40 PM


I agree with you wholeheartedly. I have seen a number of situations when the youth outreach programs had no actual young people even involved. It has been mostly well-meaning adults.

IMO, some of the most innovative ideas for organizing and educational outreach has come from young people. We should do far more to develop leadership among young people and to support youth-created and youth-led organizing projects.

The adults come with the money and the all the spiffy new "theoretical frameworks". Unfortunately the other thing they come with is an inability to relinquish control.

Any organization that contemplates youth oriented programming should have a youth advisory board/committee. These boards help, and in many cases lead the way, in identifying both needs and interventions.

It isn't rocket science, but it does require a commitment to inclusivity and power sharing.

If your organization is going after federal funds to do programming community input is almost universally required on grant applications.

gregC, you're so right. I forgot about that little wrinkle. I have very often worked in and with organizations which were led by older people who, for all their invaluable experience and talents, could not relinquish control often or long enough for younger people to lead in a relevant direction. These have mostly been leather social clubs, so their demise due to inflexibility is not particularly dire for the community as a whole. However, I'm sure the phenomenon has worse implications elsewhere.

yay for this post!

as a young adult who focuses on queer youth work, i am delighted to see somebody writing about this.

my "queer mama" as i like to call her, and dear mentor, randi romo of the center for artistic revolution (CAR) in arkansas ( makes it a priority to recruit youth and young adults for CAR's board. i learned all about movement building and organizing by being a part of this process, and the board helped shape the direction of the organization for more youth initiatives. i encourage all boards of directors to recruit youth participation in their boards, so that youth have meaningful input in decision-making processes. it makes a huge difference not only in programming, but also in the personal development of our nation's queer youth!

One problem that we have run into with one organization is that we have asked 20 somethings and even teens for help in planning and organizing. There is even an offer to put some actual young people on the board of directors and frankly the youth have not stepped up to do it.

i can empathize with you, however a lot of this has to do with how you're asking and the repuation of your organization. if the organizatio has historically been a gay white middle-age male group (just an example, i'm not making any assumptions about your particular group) then it's harder for youth to see where their voices might be valued. tableing at youth events and having one on one conversations with progressive youth (as well as getting their email addresses) is a good way to start. you also have to get hip with the social networking sites like myspace and facebook! :)

Since I mentioned Youth Advisory Boards I thought I'd pass along a link to one such board. This is one is organized by a for profit enterprise, but I think it illustrates the idea pretty well.

State Farm YAB