Sustainability Strategies for Youth Advisory Boards: A Podcast on Youth Engagement

This podcast presents highlights from Sustainable Strategies, a one-day event organized by the Center for Court
Innovation and Coro New York Leadership Center in September 2015. Representatives from 11 organizations
discussed successes, challenges, and strategies used to meaningfully engage young people and elevate their voices
in policy discussions through youth advisory boards. Members of youth justice boards also shared their experiences
and insights with the group. 


is Mary Walle from the Center for Court Innovation, and you’re listening to the New Thinking podcast. Today’s
conversation comes from Sustainable Strategies for Effective Youth Advisory Boards, a day-long convening of youth
advisory board practitioners, held by the Center for Court Innovation and Coro New York Leadership Center thanks
to the generous funding of the WB Clement and Jesse V. Stone Foundation.

What are youth advisory
boards? They are small programs run by nonprofit organizations and government agencies that bring the voices of young
people into policy work. Sustainable Strategies brought together youth advisory board practitioners from across New
York City to discuss their work to bring young people’s voices and ideas into meaningful policy change.

In this podcast, you will first hear from four experienced youth advisory board practitioners about how
their programs operate, the challenges they face, questions they grapple with, and best practices to keep in mind
when designing and facilitating a youth advisory board program. Then, four youth advisory board program alumni will
share their experiences in these programs and the impact that membership has had on their lives.

start by hearing from Brooke Richie-Babbage, the founder and executive director of the Resilience Advocacy Project.
Here, she discusses the mission, structure, and challenges of Resilience Advocacy Project’s youth advisory board

BROOKE RICHIE-BABBAGE: Our mission is to empower youth to become leaders in the fight against
poverty. We train young people in these spaces to identify social justice issues that they are passionate about in
their communities, and then to develop concrete community impact initiatives in response to those problems. They
spend a year becoming an expert on their campaign topic, and then every campaign culminates in an event. The event
is designed to bring youth and adult leaders into the same space to discuss and develop recommendations to push for

WALLE: Brooke also discussed the challenges and tensions organizations may face when the
youth participants, not adult staff, are by design in charge of the direction and the work of the program.

RICHIE-BABBAGE: This level of youth leadership makes me uncomfortable. I believe in it, right? I started
this organization. But the messiness of it, and not knowing before the citywide town hall meetings what is going
to happen at the end can make it difficult both for me personally and as an executive director to identify funding
and resources and to know where our partnerships and work are going to go, because I am not the one picking the topic.
How do you build a structure and build on successes when you’re not in charge of that aspect of guiding the

On the flip side, I think that the work is much more diverse in ways that I don’t know
that our staff who are deeply committed to youth leadership, and, quite frankly, better at it than me, would even
have paid attention to it.

It was really our youth leaders who were out there doing the recruitment
that said, “We also need to pay attention to things like age.” The dynamic of a room where everybody’s
a senior except for two people matters. That changes things in how we do work. We need to pay attention to the fact
that a lot of young people have to work after school. If, in order to be involved, you actually need to be here two
days a week, who are we then saying can’t be involved without actually saying that? That voice and that perspective
came from our young people, so the fact that they guide our recruitment and the way that the body itself is formed,
I think is very powerful.

WALLE: Brooke went on to explore the challenges her organization faces
in running a youth advisory board.

RICHIE-BABBAGE: I just want to highlight a couple of the tensions
or questions, really, that have come out of this youth leadership work and the youth council in particular, again,
against a backdrop of an organization that believes in leadership but practices it in different ways.

first is, how does this group fit into our larger organizational programmatic and policy advocacy structure? There’s
a real tension between remaining nimble and responsive to what they say they are interested in, and also running
an organization and having a program that is accountable for outcomes to funders.

Second is infrastructure.
If we want them to have a real system impact, how do we have a program that has a beginning and an end, that has
some kind of structure that is measurable and that allows the participants to feel like they are achieving something
and yet is also acknowledging of the fact that if we’re serious about them having a system impact that takes
longer than a year.

Rep’s board has identified five core social justice issues around which
we want to have an impact. What do we do if young people want to focus on something that’s not on that list,
and how do we guide their choice without making it not a meaningful choice?

Finally, who decides
and enforces the rules of the group? Group work, for those of you who do it, is hard. It’s messy. Striking the
right balance between being adult experts and facilitators in a room and also allowing the young people to grapple
with the messiness of becoming true leaders is difficult.

WALLE: Next, we’ll hear from Linda
Baird, associate director of youth justice programs at the Center for Court Innovation and former Youth Justice Board
program coordinator. The Center founded the Youth Justice Board in response to the realization that the young people
the Center worked with did not have a voice at the table where decisions were being made that would affect their
lives. Linda discusses the program’s goals and its challenges.

LINDA BAIRD: The goal of the
program is to bring the voices of young people into policymaking and have them be able to give their input on issues
that affect them. We really try to caution young people this isn’t just a program where you say, “I found
all this stuff is wrong. That’s too bad.” Then we ask them to take the next step, “And what can you
do about it as a young person? What are your ideas to fix it?” – because adults don’t often hear these.

WALLE: Building on Brooke’s earlier comments, Linda talked about how the program faced the realities
of changing policy.

BAIRD: As everybody in this room probably is aware, the timeline for policy
change … Unfortunately, I have not figured out how to make it align with the school calendar. We have thought about,
in our implementation phase, what we can do so that young people can have a few really credible, meaty projects that
come out of that period. Even with adding a full extra year on the topic of study, we at the Center realize that
that doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is wrapped up and that our work is done.

WALLE: Brooke
and Linda brought up many important questions to consider while designing and facilitating youth advisory board programs.
Up next, Laura Jankstrom, Youth Action NYC program coordinator, from the Citizens’ Committee for Children, discusses
how its youth programs are structured in response to similar questions.

Action Community Leadership course is the point of entry into the Youth Action program for interested students. At
the end of the ten-week course, the students are eligible to become Youth Action members. This is the real youth-led
piece of what we do. These guys meet every week for a couple of hours on Wednesdays for the duration of the school
year, and they pick the topics that they want to work on, and they pick the types of projects that they want to do.

For some of their projects, they want to stick to the traditional “We want to research this issue,
we want to create policy recommendations, and we want to meet with elected officials to educate them on what we found.”
They want to feel an impact immediately. They don’t want to wait for the policy change to be made a year, two
years, three years down the line. It’s a lot of times difficult to follow an issue if it’s not something
that the news is really covering a lot, and so kids aren’t seeing movement on them. I can’t just send them
an article and say, “Hey, see what’s happening with the issue that we’re working on.” A lot of
that is really done behind the scenes.

An example I have, one semester, we were doing teen mental
health, and one of the recommendations that our group brought was that there should be a teen suicide awareness day
in New York City. The following year, councilmember Steve Levin introduced a bill that would make September Teen
Suicide Awareness Month for the entire state and credited the Youth Action meeting that he took with pushing him
to introduce that bill. By that time, a lot of those kids were moving on to greener pastures, but I did my best to
reach out to them and say, “Hey, congratuations, you made a difference.”

The final arm
of our three-pronged Youth Action program is peer trainers. Kids go through the training course. If they want to,
they become Youth Action members. Then, from that group, I pick about four students every year to become peer trainers.
They develop and facilitate workshops for other programs that are interested in civic engagement, advocacy, leadership,
New York City government.

WALLE: The final adult practitioner we’ll hear from is Chris Neal,
senior director of youth programs and initiatives from Coro New York Leadership Center. He discusses the pillars
and breadth of Coro’s youth programming and the importance of youth-adult partnerships.

NEAL: One of the major pillars of our work is this notion of youth-adult partnership, which you’ve heard talked
about today a little bit, and that’s the idea or the work of young people working in partnership and collaboration
with adults on common issues.

I believe in youth voice, I love youth voice, but I’m also
very clear about the role that we have as adults in the room, and that is to create the hooks for young people to
hang their ideas on. They have a number of ideas, lots of wonderful things they’d like to do, and our role,
sitting in the back, but leading from behind, as Obama would say, is to provide those hooks. “Well, maybe you
might think about doing this,” or “Have you ever thought about doing that?”

other pillar of our program is probably youth in policy in practice. What does that mean? Youth in policy in practice
means that over the course of our work, which is the last ten years, in working with youth councils both in schools
and across the city, we found that the area where young people have the greatest impact is on how policies are shaped,
the decision making process, and then how they are implemented. We rely and we spend a great deal of our time building
the capacity of our young people to go out, collect data, collect the authentic voice and experiences of their peers,
and bring those back in a meaningful way so they can contribute to the decision making process or the implementation
process of policy. That is a fundamental of our work.

Three years ago, Coro had one youth program
and about 24 young people. Now we have three youth programs and two initiatives and about 200 young people. One of
the biggest tensions, which you spoke to a little bit, Brooke, is organizationally realizing that rather we want
to think about it this way or not, we are a de facto youth development organization. Now we need to begin to think
about what that means organizationally.

WALLE: A common theme identified by the practitioners
was the challenge of convincing the youth advisory board host organization of the value of youth voice, and figuring
out how to integrate young people’s ideas. Here’s how Chris described that challenge.

Something I think we may have all run into is this notion of managing up. The folks that are above you may not always
understand the importance of youth programs and having youth councils in your agency. You might have to do a little
bit of managing up, I call it. “This is the benefit of this program. This is why we need to have this. This
is how it’s going to improve our work. This is how it’s going to make us have a greater impact.” Adultism
is real, and a lot of adults do not think that young people have a place in policy, practice, and implementation.
What are young people going to do? What are they going to do for this organization? How can we utilize them?

WALLE: Now we will hear from young people on their experience as youth advisory board members. BERNADETTE,
Stephanie, Alex, and Levi are alumni of youth advisory board programs at the Center for Court Innovation and Coro
New York Leadership Center. They first discuss how the program affected their growth as young leaders and then offer
their advice on how to lead and recruit for youth advisory board programs. Last, they share how the experience impacted
their lives.

ALEX: I’m Alex.  The Youth Justice Board exposed me to a whole other
world I never really about. [inaudible 00:11:37] Coro allowed me have unique access to the mayor’s office and
city government, which I think every youth should have some sort of access to. I think that’s really eye opening
and really an enlightening experience.

BERNADETTE: My name is Bernadette. YJB really influenced
me in understanding a lot about policy and how it was developed and how it affects young people. It definitely affected
me. I thought that it just affected adults, adults would just tell me what to do and I would listen. YJB really opened
a door to see how everything comes down from the top and it trickles down to the bottom.

I always
thought a leader was the one who was at the forefront of everything. I’m a shy person. Being in Coro, exploring
leadership there, I really find myself as a leader because of the fact that I can collaborate and communicate with
different people.

STEPHANIE: My name is Stephanie. One main point for me would be having to write
recommendations and actually being accomplished at the end of the year. Another highlight was the presentation at
Pace University. I felt like such an adult. It really exposed me to a world of people that I don’t think I would
have been talking to with the confidence I have now.

WALLE: One of the topics the youth discussed
was the qualities adult partners and program leaders should possess.

BERNADETTE: The relationship
should not be, “I’m the program facilitator and you’re the program participant.” It’s more
like, “Okay, so we’re working together on this same issue,” and so understanding that that type of
dynamic works best with young people, because a lot of people look at adults as authority figures, not as people
who I can be equal with.

ALEX: My facilitators would oftentimes step back, and they would say,
“Our job is to be a facilitator. It’s not to be someone who is governing over the situation that is happening
at the moment.” Oftentimes they left the room to let us sort of engage each other and not just speak to the
adult in the room, which I think does naturally happen because we’re used to a classroom environment where we
just respond to a teacher.

The facilitator is there to facilitate, but also to step back, but
also to help us have access to them and to the multiple resources that they can provide us as adults.

Not only do we just focus on the program, but we always have check ins with our facilitators.

I think what worked best is that the program itself is not based in a classroom style. Both YJB and Coro’s Leadership,
it’s a circle, so everybody can see each other, everybody get to talk to one another, and it’s discussion-based.
It’s not a lecture.

WALLE: Youth Advisory Program alumni continued sharing advice about these
programs, including how to recruit for them, during the question and answer segment.

LEVI: I think
that if you relate it back to current events and link the program to how it’s affecting society today, I think
they can definitely make people more interested.

BERNADETTE: They could also talk about skills
that they will do well in.

ALEX: I think maybe going in into schools and recruiting people through
the discussion of issues that are relating back to them would allow them to engage.

I would just say get the message out to them that what they’re doing is going to be beneficial not only for
them, but for future generations.

JANKSTROM: What is one thing that really surprised you about
your experience in these programs? Is there something you think differently now than you thought when you started?

LEVI: Before I joined Youth Justice Board, I never knew much about policy or criminal justice or police-community
relationships. It gave me the opportunity to learn about it, and not only to learn about it, to be an active member
and do it. To be involved and try to change it.

ALEX: I joined the YJB in 9th grade, and that
was very early for me, but it allowed me to enter high school in a completely different perspective, in the sense
that I was able to … Instead of just having this feeling that I needed to keep my head down and do my work and
do all these different things, I felt like I could understand the people that were in society that I walked by every
day and took the subway with, and I felt like I had a closer connection to a community that wasn’t my school.
I think that’s really important, because yeah, we could all be class president or anything, but it’s important
to engage in the community, especially in a community as large as New York City.

In retrospect, how do you feel this work has impacted your life beyond the work in your council? How has it helped
you in school or with your peers? Can you speak to anything, one thing that really resonated with you that you’ve
been able to take away and apply it in other areas of your life?

BERNADETTE: For me, two things.
One, I am a founder of a new club called DP, which is basically Diversity Project. The main focus of DP is to include
people who you really don’t hear about or backgrounds you don’t really hear about. For me, the second thing
would be dynamics and how I was perceived the world and how other people would perceive the world, and things that
I would do or my tendencies. I think what it allowed me in school is how to navigate with different people, because
you have the loud people and you have the shy people, and so how do I connect with them to make sure that the work
is done.

ALEX: Well, the Youth Justice Board taught me, it helps practical fields like time management,
note-taking skills, and it also teaches you responsibility, which is important. I think I became more responsible
throughout the program.

STEPHANIE: It also helps you connect to the real world. For example, we
did a lot of interviews last year with stakeholders and a lot of these important people, but when we actually asked
teams to go out to the real world and to apply for a job and get the interview, it helps us in that sort of way because
now we are better at our speaking skills and communication skills.

WALLE: This has been Mary Walle
with the Center for Court Innovation. You’ve been listening to advice and best practices from youth advisory
board practitioners and youth participants from Sustainable Strategies for Effective Youth Advisory Boards.

For more information on the Youth Justice Board and the Center for Court Innovation, you can visit

For more information about the Coro New York Leadership Center, you can visit

Thank you to the W. Clement and Jesse. B. Stone Foundation for their generous funding that made this event
and podcast possible. To hear more New Thinking podcasts, you can visit