How Effective Youth-Adult Partnerships Can Grow Voters
Author: Ruby Belle Booth
Contributors: Peter de Guzman, Sara Suzuki
One of the key recommendations in the CIRCLE Growing Voters framework for is: "nothing about us without us." Many organizations focus on providing resources and information to youth or programming and services for youth. Youth-adult partnership (YAP) is a model focused on partnering, as equals, with youth.
YAP's model of intergenerational collaboration is grounded in mutuality and respect across generations. It focuses on creating processes, structures, and spaces that counteract existing power hierarchies and allow for meaningful collaboration toward a shared goal despite different positionalities. YAP is about creating opportunities for youth to have an active role in decision-making, problem solving, and strategic planning while using a developmental approach that provides support and mentorship as young people assume these new roles. It can happen in many settings as long as it involves multiple youth and multiple adults collaborating over time to create change within a community, organization, or society-at-large. This kind of work not only benefits all stakeholders involved, but also makes the collective work toward social change more innovative, successful, inclusive, and just.
Defining “youth” within an intergenerational collaboration is a recurring challenge and differs across programs and organizations. In different contexts or when interacting with different people, one individual can fall into either the category of youth or adult, muddying the definitions. For instance someone in their early 20s may be seen as an adult by high schoolers, but as a youth by older adults and may feel differently based on the context. In some instances, the use of the label “youth” can be irrelevant and only serves to harm the partnership since it reinforces existing power dynamics.
Why Are Youth-Adult Partnerships Essential to Growing Voters?
Youth-adult partnerships benefit both the young people involved and the organizations that bring them in as leaders and co-creators. The model can help build the capacities, and produce the results necessary for meaningful shifts that expand the electorate.
For young people, YAP can:
- Develop social and problem-solving skills through cross-generation collaborative work
- Facilitate learning of knowledge, skills, and values through intergenerational learning and hands-on experience in organizing, activism, and organization and community settings
- Support in developing young people’s autonomy, sense of identity, social capital, and sense of purpose
- Incorporate their life experiences into the design of systems, programs, and policies, leading to organizations and communities that better support and include young people
- Expand their perception of their power and serve as a pathway to lifelong civic engagement. (National Council for Mental Wellbeing, 2021; Norman, 2001; Petrokubi & Janssen, 2017; Zeldin & Petrokubi, 2008)
For adults and organizations, authentic partnership with young people can:
- Improve their understanding of young people, their needs, and the issues that are important to them
- Engage in reflection about their own positionality, ability to collaborate, and communication style through intergenerational work
- Diversify the perspectives they’re exposed to and become more equipped and skillful at being accountable to all members of a community
- Increase organizational effectiveness and relevance by learning from and working with with a highly diverse demographic
- Serve as further evidence for the benefits of working with young people, to ultimately strengthen their own and other organizations’ commitment to working with youth. (National Council for Mental Wellbeing, 2021; Nalani et al., 2021; Norman, 2001; Petrokubi & Janssen, 2017; Zeldin & Petrokubi, 2008).
Within the context of civic learning and engagement, these benefits of intergenerational partnership not only facilitate the growth and community-level change that are often explicit programmatic goals; they also build civic skills like communication and collaboration, and civic dispositions like empathy, respect, and connection to community.
The CIRCLE Growing Voters framework, which aims to create pathways of institution- and community-level support for youth civic participation, exemplifies both why a model like YAP is needed and how it can advance key objectives. CIRCLE Growing Voters strives to create communities where young people’s expertise, often borne out of different and diverse lived experiences, is leveraged to improve youth civic learning and engagement. However, even as young people can provide essential input when designing any kind of intervention or support focused on youth or on communities they’re a part of, young people are often left out of spaces that have decision-making power in those efforts.
CIRCLE acknowledges and applauds the existing efforts in these areas by young leaders, inside and outside of adult-led institutions. But we recognize that the work of advancing electoral learning and engagement has too often been shouldered by youth—and that it’s time for older generations and institutions to step up. As we call on more organizations to engage in CIRCLE Growing Voters, we ask them to learn from and work alongside young people who have already been deeply engaged in this work for themselves and their peers, and for adults to engage in the broader learning and shifts required by youth-adult collaborations.
We recognize that successful youth-adult partnerships are challenging. To be effective, they require an intentional examination of traditional power hierarchies that have long governed youth-serving programs and organizations, and a willingness to reject and restructure systems or processes that are not conducive to meaningful intergenerational collaboration. When not managed carefully, youth-adult partnerships can cause more harm than good, potentially making young people feel more isolated from their community. For example, young people are often tokenized in organizations: given a position for the optics of inclusion, or allowed and expected to only provide a “young perspective,” but not given a meaningful role.
Five Principles of Successful Youth-Adult Partnerships
The recommendations that follow, though far from comprehensive, offer five core principles of effective youth-adult partnership that can prevent these negative outcomes and instead foster productive collaborations. We encourage organizations to reflect on these principles, and the related strategies, and consider how they can integrate youth-adult partnership into their work.
Clear goals, roles, and responsibilities, as well as processes to adapt and revise these as needed, are paramount for any successful partnership. Especially when working with young people who may be new to organizational work and adults new to intergenerational work, outlining in detail how the partnership will work can help all participants feel more secure in their role and may counteract falling back on adult-centered power structures. Setting expectations early on and revisiting goals often can ensure that all participants understand their position and can participate fully. When things change, openness and transparency are crucial to make sure that all participants feel like they are in the loop and equal partners.
Youth-adult partnerships fail when they aren’t approached with the necessary care and focus to support everyone’s equal participation. Working carefully to set expectations and build mechanisms for adjusting those expectations based on participants’ needs can ensure that everyone feels like they have a voice. Additionally, in order to make this transparency effective, it is essential to take time to build relationships between participants. It takes dedicated time and space to develop a foundation of trust and mutual respect, but it is necessary to overcome stereotypes and generational or cultural differences that can jeopardize intergenerational relationships. If participants don’t feel comfortable or trusting in a space, they are unable to take advantage of systems and structures intended to make the partnership more collectively driven.
- Have a conversation about individual and collective expectations for the collaboration
- Place value on collective action: adults and youth should feel as if they did it “together”
- Identify and document roles and responsibilities for all group members. Explicit assignments and demarcation of power, especially for processes like decision-making, are important to make sure that adults don’t always take on this role by default.
- Establish processes for accountability and regular reflection
- Make clear why this intergenerational work is being done and how it connects to the goals of the organization
- Meet face-to-face whenever possible and make team building, social connection, and fun a priority
- Consider carefully if and how you will use the binary categories of youth and adult in your program.
- All participants should have opportunities to reflect on their positionality within society and within the collaboration. It is far more rare for adults to be given spaces in which to consider their positionality, yet the way adults view themselves and their positionality, power, and role can have a significant impact on the dynamic of any intergenerational collaboration.
A central part of YAP is youth and adults working together as equals who acknowledge and respect each other’s unique contributions and experiences. Because of how ageism manifests in professional spaces and in society, it takes additional effort to make young people’s voices equally valued. It is critical to create structures that can support young people in claiming power that they may be denied in other aspects of their lives because of historical or societal dynamics. At the same time, adults must develop the skills to effectively share power with young people; organizations must create scaffolded opportunities to learn and practice those skills. One of the challenges of YAP is that this power-sharing requires buy-in from all parties involved; there must be shared accountability and responsibility for success in the group.
Additionally, youth recruited for intergenerational collaborations may also have less power due to their income, race, sexuality, immigration background, language background, or other factors. Thinking about the way that various, intersecting power structures beyond age may be at play in these collaborations is essential to making sure all participants feel welcomed, seen, and empowered. All participants should be provided with opportunities to learn about and reflect on how systems of power may be at play in their group.
- Assume that not all participants feel equally comfortable or capable requesting and sharing power. Build in support for young people who are still working to develop these skills (mentoring, peer modeling, and explicit teaching) and create structures that can support more young people in claiming power. At the same time, provide resources and opportunities for education and reflection for adults who are engaging in power sharing. Adults also have different or limited experience working and communicating with young people outside of personal settings, such as their families. Adults need to build skills in working with young people in a professional or community setting.
- Structure opportunities for youth involvement as a continuous part of work processes rather than episodic projects and being willing to adapt and expand existing work processes to make room for youth voice.
- Recognize that there is more than one way for young people to participate in organizations. It may be helpful to present youth with a range of options for their involvement, as well as scaffolded responsibilities that build over time as young people develop new skills, competencies, and confidence.
- Give young people the opportunity to implement their ideas with guidance from adults. Finding a balance between giving young people autonomy within the project while still providing support can be challenging, but by building trust within the group and establishing practices of transparency and open dialogue (covered in the first principle) can help youth and adults navigate these dynamics.
Most adults and young people will not initially come into a potential working relationship with all of the knowledge and skills to create and participate in an effective youth-adult partnership. Providing opportunities to grow these skills before and during the partnership can help to even out power dynamics and ease tensions. This includes both the power-sharing skills discussed above, but also other skills such as effective communication, reflection, and problem-solving in intergenerational collaborations.
- Approach working with youth with a developmental lens: meet every young person where they are at. There is a lot of variation between and within groups of youth; even two teenagers of similar ages and backgrounds may have very different skills and capacities and will need different support in order to best engage with this effort. Take the time to explore different young people’s starting points in relation to various skills and capacities.
- Host an orientation at the start of the collaboration to provide necessary training to both youth and adults
- Succinctly translate knowledge so that it is easily understood and applied by youth and professionals of varying experience. This can be done through different onboarding processes for youth and adults or based on experience. For instance, be aware of institutional knowledge, acronyms, etc. that adults may be familiar with but could be new concepts to youth or others new to the work.
- Create an ongoing dialogue where both parties are able to discuss the resources and support they need
- Taking care not to tokenize their participation, actively solicit youth input in meetings and discussions. This may require ongoing coaching on the part of adults to help youth feel confident in expressing their thoughts.
- Working with young people requires a commitment to holistic and developmental support: time and space for reflection, decompression, and community-building can help young people (and adults!) participate to their fullest.
An essential part to effective youth-adult partnerships is recognizing that young people offer value in decision-making processes—and acting accordingly. Tokenization describes when young people are ostensibly given specific youth-branded roles in power structures like boards and committees but are not given meaningful decision-making or power. That can give young people the appearance and illusion of youth voice, yet it fails to value how young people benefit decision-making in organizations. By partnering with a genuine belief that youth are assets with organizational structures and processes that treat them as such, youth-adult partnership can flourish.
- Pay young people for their time and labor. This is essential for creating an equitable program that truly values young people, their time, and their contributions.
- Think of youth, not as a population to serve, but as a group that can provide valuable insights and inputs to the program, organization, and community.
- Pay attention to which youth are involved to ensure that opportunities are accessible to all young people. For example, are young people from a specific neighborhood or identity absent or underrepresented?
- No tokenization! This includes when young people are brought on to fill roles adults don’t want or stereotypically associate with youth (e.g., to manage social media or do graphic design), for “optics,” or for input and feedback without real power or a role in decision-making (Norman, 2001).
- Near-peers (slightly older people who can serve as mentors or a “middleman” between generations) can be a way to nurture relationships between youth and adults.
- Intentionally create spaces designed to support youth, rather than forcing youth into adult spaces and roles.
For youth and adults alike, YAP requires a willingness to embrace change and a learning mindset. Everyone involved in this kind of collaboration has lots to learn from one another, regardless of age, position, or experience. In order to succeed in the learning, reflecting, and adapting required by the prior principles, participants must enter the intergenerational collaboration open to growth. Working intergenerationally will expose participants to new perspectives, information, communication styles, and approaches to work. Openness to these new, possibly uncomfortable, experiences, as well as reflection about what is new and challenging, can help the collaboration reach its maximum potential.
- Emphasize collective mentorship—not just between two people, but active teaching and learning that is shared among a whole group
- Appreciate the value of different forms of knowledge and expertise. Young people’s experience and knowledge may not directly come from or translate into professional or academic settings, but it is still valid and valuable.
- Part of welcoming youth into an intergenerational collaboration is accepting them as young people, not forcing them to act like an adult and match certain professional norms. Being open to means of communication and expression that are comfortable for young people, rather than holding them to standards that may be unfamiliar to them, can be important for making them more comfortable.
- Maintain high expectations for participating youth while remaining aware of how essential adult knowledge, experience, and access to resources are to their success.
- Recognize that different styles of communication do not imply disrespect, disinterest, or a lack of commitment to shared goals and expectations.
- Reflection and willingness to make changes that are responsive to that reflection is an essential part of creating and implementing any new program, especially one with complicated power dynamics to navigate.
General Resources for Intergenerational Collaboration
- Co-Creation Generation Toolkit and Case Studies from the Institute of Citizens and Scholars [LINK]
- “Cogeneration: Is America Ready to Unleash a Multigenerational Force for Good?” from NORC at the University of Chicago [LINK]
- “Beyond Passing the Torch: Recommendations on Leveraging Age Diversity to Build a Stronger Democracy Now” from Generation Citizen [LINK]
- Berkeley’s Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) Hub [LINK]
- Community Futures Community Lore’s Stepping Stones Curriculum for YPAR projects [LINK]
- CIRCLE’s “Working and Learning Together for Equitable Impact: An Impact Assessment of Intergenerational Civic Partnerships in The Civic Spring Project” [LINK]
- Assessing the Meaningful Inclusion of Youth Voice in Policy and Practice: State of the Science by Jennifer E. Blakeslee and Janet S. Walker [LINK]
- Search Institute [LINK]
- Establishing a Youth Advisory Council Toolkit from GenerationOn Game Changers [LINK]
- Youth Engagement in Research and Evaluation for practitioners/youth-serving orgs by UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent [LINK]
- Youth Engagement in Research and Evaluation for funders by UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent [LINK]
- Alford, S. (Ed.). (2021, November 10). Building effective youth-adult partnerships. Advocates for Youth. Retrieved February 16, 2023, from https://www.advocatesforyouth.org/resources/fact-sheets/building-effective-youth-adult-partnerships/
- Cahill, H., & Dadvand, B. (2018). Re-conceptualising youth participation: A framework to inform action. Children and Youth Services Review, 95, 243-253.
- Camino, L. (2004). Pitfalls and promising practices of Youth-Adult Partnerships: An evaluator's reflections. Journal of Community Psychology, 33(1), 75–85. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcop.20043
- Camino, L. A. (2000). Youth-adult partnerships: Entering new territory in Community Work and Research. Applied Developmental Science, 4(sup1), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532480xads04suppl_2
- Ramey, H. L., Lawford, H. L., & Vachon, W. (2017). Youth-adult partnerships in work with youth: An overview. Journal of Youth Development, 12(4), 38–60. https://doi.org/10.5195/jyd.2017.520
- Ramey, H. L., Rayner, M.-E., Mahdy, S. S., Lawford, H. L., Lanctot, J., Campbell, M., Valenzuela, E., Miller, J., & Hazlett, V. (2019). The Young Canadians Roundtable on Health: Promising Practices for youth and adults working in partnership. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 110(5), 626–632. https://doi.org/10.17269/s41997-019-00254-9
- Zeldin, S., Camino, L. and Mook, C. (2005), The adoption of innovation in youth organizations: Creating the conditions for youth–adult partnerships. J. Community Psychol., 33: 121-135. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/10.1002/jcop.20044
- Zeldin, S., & Collura, J. (2010). Being Y-AP Savvy: A primer on creating & sustaining youth-adult partnerships.
- Zeldin, S., McDaniel, A. K., Topitzes, D., & Calvert, M. (2000). A Study on the Impacts of Youth on Adults and Organizations. Madison: University of Wisconsin.
- Zeldin, S., Petrokubi, J., McCart, S., Khanna, N., Collura, J., & Christens, B. (2011). Strategies for Sustaining Quality Youth-Adult Partnerships in Organizational. The Prevention Researcher, (18), 7-1
CIRCLE Growing Voters
Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.