Catching up with the Youth Voice Working Group

We hear a lot about Youth Voice, but what does it mean? How does it intersect with authentic learning, creative expression, and civic action? Catch up on the evolving practice of youth voice with Jess Gold, Remake Learning lead for the Youth Voice Working Group.

YMAP program director Jess Gold / Photo by Nico Segall Tobon

Children are people. It’s a simple axiom, but one that can get lost in rooms full of adults talking about what’s best for children. These are among the central tenets of “youth voice,” a broad term that encompasses a wide variety of principles, practices, and programs.

Youth Voice has been a consistent theme among Remake Learning network members for years. Trying Together and the CREATE Lab came together to create Message from Me as a way to literally give voice to very young children in early learning settings. A+ Schools instigated TeenBloc to advocate for a student bill of rights. Youth Express streams youth-made media content 24/7. Schools, scholars, and students came together to create a multi-organization pathway to amplify youth voice.

While each effort takes a unique approach, they share is a recognition that children have thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are valid and worthy of respect, attention, and thoughtful consideration. Youth voice approaches seek to create the conditions to make this not just possible, but the norm.

The Youth Voice Working Group of Remake Learning is engaging youth workers and young people to cement the principles of youth voice and power within all aspects of the regional learning ecosystem. Jess Gold has led the working group’s latest evolution and its efforts to launch a standards of practice toolkit to guide youth workers.

Why Youth Voice? Why does it matter and how it fit into the picture for Remake Learning?

Remake Learning is focused on engaging, relevant, and equitable learning practices in support of young people, but we focus most of the work on the adult administrators and educators. We need to do a better job centering the people most impacted by this—the young people themselves. Youth have been saying this, too.

As adults, we have been in the habit of making decisions on their behalf, so we live in a society where this is normalized. This makes us forget that youth are well positioned to weigh in on all of this, because they experience it. It shapes their day-to-day lives.

So we need to transform our own thinking, practices, and systems. All of us—both youth and adults — benefit greatly from listening more to youth voice.

What’s the state of Youth Voice in the network? Where are we strong and where do you see opportunities for us to get better?

It’s true there is a lot of great youth voice programming happening in Pittsburgh. There are many youth-organized programs and events, and then a lot of adult-led structures and organizations that are working to build more capacity for youth leadership within existing programs.

My frame of reference is mostly on those adult-designed programs that are structured to create capacity for youth leadership. There are so many examples, I don’t know where to start, but a few that I refer to often are:

YMCA Lighthouse has been a mainstay in this work. I’ve worked closely with the adults and have had the opportunity to meet some of the youth. Recently, they shared a pretty incredible and transformative story about how they restructured their programs to better accommodate the goals, needs, and identities of the young people in the program. A lot of their past programs centered around teaching skills and providing space for youth to express themselves. This past year, they had deep conversation with youth to guide the restructuring process. From what I’ve heard, this has had a positive impact on the quality of the program. More youth are showing up, they’re showing up more regularly, they’re taking part in deeper learning, setting goals and working towards them.

1hood is at the forefront of youth organizing in Pittsburgh. They have done an incredible job of listening to the needs and experiences of the youth they work with and providing a structure and framework for better understanding those issues and taking action. One of the thing that’s remarkable is that the youth organizing that they’ve done has had such a far-reaching impact in pittsburgh, from the youth-led protests in the wake of the murder of Antwon Rose II to regular youth organizing and actions that grew out of that. They’ve done a great job of centering youth leadership and providing education and support for that.

I’m a little biased, but YMAP (Youth Media Advocacy Project) that I’m part of at Carlow University along with SLB Radio and Pittsburgh Public Schools, has been building youth voice for a decade. Our program is centered on youth voice, both in the sense that we really try to create space for youth to express themselves and work towards social change, but we also utilize media to do that. Our program provides a year-round structure for youth to identify problems within their schools and communities that they want to change, research those problems, meet with people, design a media campaign around the positive change they want to make.

What’s the Youth Voice working group been up to? How has it grown and developed? Where has the past work led you up to?

The idea for the Youth Voice Working Group was formed a few summers ago— ironically in a room full of adults. Remake Learning wanted to have a conversation about youth voice, what was happening in Pittsburgh, where good work was already taking place and where there was room for growth. A lot of ideas were discussed, but the general consensus with that group of adults was recognition that while some good work was happening, we needed an overwhelming shift towards youth voice in our entire region and some holistic support and tools to get there. And because Remake Learning is designed to convene and support shifts like that, it felt like the appropriate container to move this work forward.

Our first big project for the working group is creating a Standards of Practice Toolkit.

What is the Standards of Practice Toolkit? What will it help people do?

The Standards of Practice Toolkit is a set of resources that will bring attention to ageism in our region and help us begin take concrete, evidence-based, hyper-local steps to address it.

We knew we wanted to live the values. We had to actually center youth voices in our process. So the Standards of Practice Toolkit became a project led by a coalition of adults and youth leaders.

We formed a core group of youth leaders and pay them for their participation. Together with adults who work with youth, including people who facilitate youth programs or act as mentors, but also some adults who act as administrators. Pretty diverse in that respect.

As a group, we met four times from August 2018 through April 2019. Over the course of those four sessions, we learned and explored a lot of existing research around youth voice, shared our own lived experience and expertise doing this work—in particular the youth themselves talking about what they’ve seen going well and what they’d like to see changed. We also relied on people doing this work for a long time. We had visitors from Neutral Zone in Michigan to do a workshop. We worked with the LUMA Institute for a couple sessions to figure out the best structure, synthesize these ideas.

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And ultimately after learning together and brainstorming where we needed to go, we created a list of 10 critical best practices to be featured on a website along with stories and resources for implementation.

We hope the website will be a incredible guide for folks to think about how to implement best youth voice practices in their own program in the Pittsburgh region and hopefully beyond. This toolkit will also share resources for implementation. Not just “OK, I know this is a best practice I should utilize,” but “I know the steps I should take to do it.”

We know a lot of resources exist, so we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re linking out to existing research and curriculum.

We’re looking forward to rolling it out in early October.

How could people learn more and get involved if they want to?

Keep an eye out for the Standards of Practice Toolkit coming out via the Remake Learning newsletter. If people are interested in getting more involved, they can reach out to me.

Published September 11, 2019