During the opening keynote of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative National Summit on Authentic Youth Engagement, speaker John Gomperts asked the audience to consider our approach to engaging youth.  He rhetorically implored the audience to consider why adults seem to instinctually resist the insights of young people and highlighted just how important youth voices are to the work done by adults.  As CEO of America’s Promise, Gompert shared that engaging the insights of young people has helped his organization better align its GradNation campaign with the real needs of youth who drop out.  As he noted, when the adults sat around the boardroom table, they struggled to understand why so many young people failed to graduate high school on time.  After interviewing more than 200 young people and considering their insights, the pieces of the puzzle came together.  They learned that youth had tangible challenges that caused them to drop out and faced life circumstances that directed their attention away from the classroom.  By engaging the youth perspective in the GradNation campaign, America’s Promise was able to refocus its goals to better address the challenges facing youth today.

Gomperts suggested a number of ways that adults can overcome their resistance to listening to young people. For one, adults should change their focus from viewing youth as a problem to be solved to seeing them as an asset to be developed.  By changing the way we see value in youth, we allow them to be empowered for their talents rather than silenced for their deficits.  As Gomperts highlighted with his story about GradNation, this shift in focus can result in a more collaborative process, engaging youth and resulting in better outcomes, as well as success for an organization and the youth they engage.

The afternoon keynote, Paul Schmitz, continued the theme of reexamining how we value and engage youth in our communities.  Among the ways that youth can be authentically engaged is to provide them with opportunities to become leaders.  Schmitz referred to leadership as a muscle that becomes stronger the more you use it.  Far too often, we view leadership as us being “full” and helping “empty” people and communities.  This approach leads to an incredibly harmful power differential between the leader and the average person.  Schmitz suggested that a great leader is an individual who sees fullness in an empty environment and broken people, focusing on gifts rather than deficits.  By doing so, leaders can recognize and mobilize all of a community’s assets.

Authentically engaging youth is a difficult task but absolutely crucial to the success of our society.  In order to engage youth in the most effective way, we must first change the way we view and value them.  If we are going to work on issues that affect the lives of young people, then we must involve young people in brainstorming, identifying and tackling solutions.  A lack of degrees or an unpolished demeanor does not mean that a youth lacks insights. We must not view the engagement of youth as an outcome of our work but rather something that is essential, created in partnership, and that can help up achieve positive results for young people. Regardless of their current life circumstances, youth have something powerful to offer to the conversation.  Let us allow them to engage in the conversation as equals, and empower youth to actualize their full potential.