As I reflect on the last five years of YouthPower Learning, I think about the youth leaders and advocates like Annet Birungi, co-founder of Safeplan Uganda and a YouthPower Learning grantee. Annet and other youth leaders advocate, teach, and lead because they know what young people have to offer and that they deserve our respect. In an interview for the Young Women Transform podcast, Annet explained, “We believe if you empower the youth, you empower the whole community.” For me, Annet is a perfect example of why we should engage young people in development efforts.
While the term “youth engagement” is used frequently in international development, it is much more than a buzz phrase or talking point. Done well, engaging youth in development work can be transformative—adding a rich dimension to our programs and harnessing the leadership potential of young people.
At YouthPower Learning, we know that getting this right requires embracing young people as partners and not just as beneficiaries. The youth development community must internalize what meaningful youth engagement looks like in theory and practice; acknowledge when our efforts are well-intentioned but result in tokenism; and examine our own assumptions, structures, and processes to create real space for youth involvement.
Historically, the youth development community has struggled to translate a conviction that youth engagement matters into its day-to-day work in meaningful and measurable ways. Fortunately, the tide is turning.
Over the last few years, I have felt a palpable shift as the concept of youth engagement has finally started to take root. It is increasingly seen as a best practice to involve youth in advocacy, decision making, and program design and implementation. Evidence, project examples, resources, and support around youth engagement are becoming more widely available.
As we wind down our project and reflect on the past five years, we are considering YouthPower Learning’s place in this ecosystem of change. From the beginning, we committed to bringing young people squarely into the heart of the project’s activities, while also grappling with how best to implement this vision. We worked to strengthen this aspect of our work as the project progressed, continually seeking to create new spaces for youth to engage with our work and with each other.
The YouthLead Platform
Our YouthLead platform is a powerful, tangible example of this commitment. In just over a year, YouthLead.org rapidly became a go-to global convening space for thousands of young changemakers, implementers, and mentors.
At the outset, YouthPower Learning set up a youth advisory council—comprising 100 young changemakers—to help design YouthLead.org. Our partnership with Atlas Corps Fellows fostered youth leadership through the design, implementation, and expansion of the platform. And our global YouthLead Ambassador program brought young volunteers to serve as torchbearers, inspiring other young changemakers, activating their networks, spearheading YouthLead activities, and shaping website and social media content.
Grants Under Contract
YouthPower Learning’s grants, which will be featured as part of our #AdvancingPYD campaign, have prioritized initiatives that promote and demonstrate youth engagement. With 17 successful grants across 20 countries, this program exemplifies how youth-led and youth-serving organizations can engage youth as decision makers, experts, researchers, advocates, mentors, and peer coaches to advance PYD.
Communities of Practice
The #AdvancingPYD campaign will also spotlight YouthPower Learning’s four communities of practice (CoPs), which have contributed to strengthening the knowledge base on youth engagement in unique and complementary ways. In particular, the CoP on Youth Engagement, the largest of the four CoPs, provided a forum for developing and sharing relevant insights, tools, resources, and measurement strategies among practitioners, researchers, and youth leaders.
Walking the Talk
Over time, YouthPower Learning has strengthened its commitment to “walk the talk” on youth engagement, growing from our successes and our stumbles alike. As we look to the closeout of this project and the next iteration, YouthPower2: Learning and Evaluation, we are proud of our role in helping to usher in a new era in youth development—one in which we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young people as true partners and leaders.