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.