By Tessie San Martin, President and CEO, Plan International USA
Earlier this week, we celebrated International Youth Day. But, even without an official United Nations-sanctioned day to provoke commentary, it seems as if everyone has something to say about this demographic. It is interesting that the UN’s definition seems to be more about what this demographic can be than what it is: Youth, it states, “is best understood as a period of transition from the dependence of childhood to adulthood’s independence and awareness of our interdependence as members of a community.” Youth, it seems, is about potential. Let’s come back to that in a bit.
Depending on how you age-bracket “youth,” we are talking large numbers: almost 2 billion, over 50 percent of the world’s population. Irrespective of the exact ages defining “youth,” youth are the dominant demographic. Go online and search youth bulge and you will get millions of hits. It seems that every organization – public, private, for-profit, and nonprofit – has something it wants to say about youth or to youth; we all want to engage them, mobilize them, protect them, work with them, help them, pitch them. But how many of us really want to listen to them? How well equipped/prepared are we to do this? Equally important, how prepared are we, once we have heard what youth are telling us, to change our strategies and plans, in response to what we are hearing?
The organization I represent, Plan International, works on behalf of and with children and youth. For Plan, effective youth participation is a strategic asset and not a “tick-the-box” exercise. We have established youth in governance structures at different levels – in the local community, and at the national and international levels to encourage and facilitate. Globally, 24 countries have established Youth Advisory Boards, eight youth serve on a global steering committee to develop strategies for youth governance, and nine countries have a youth member on their Board of Directors. We also have a youth board member at the U.S. national office and youth representation on Plan's Members Assembly – the Plan Federation’s governing body.
Making all of this work, and I mean really work – so that it leads to meaningful rather than tokenistic engagement – takes constant commitment. You have to address “adultism.” This means that adults often have to modify their behavior, delivery, and methods of engagement in a work environment when young people are participating. Staff need to be skilled in this (and coached/trained), and the organization needs to devote time to creating a safe environment for meaningful participation (one that encourages all opinions and makes it safe to dissent). We have found it is useful to have mentors at all levels of the organization. Bottom line: It requires that you adapt timelines for planning, design, and execution; change staffing patterns; and invest in training. You need to ensure there is appropriate time to prepare youth to engage effectively with the organization and prepare the organization to engage effectively with youth.