Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels, but old men are guilty if they forget what it is to be young.— J. K. Rowling
THE IMPORTANCE OF ENGAGING YOUTH
Meaningful participation of young people in all aspects of their personal and community development has been recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental right of youth (UNICEF, 2003). The United Nations defines youth engagement as “the active and meaningful involvement of young people in all aspects of their own development and that of their communities, including their empowerment to contribute to decisions about their personal, family, social, economic, and political development” (United Nations, 2007, p. 245). Such engagement requires recognition of young people’s knowledge, perspectives, and experience as valuable contributions to decision making at all levels (United Nations, 2007), along with structures and systems put in place by adults to support them (Patton et al., 2016).
Adolescents exhibit agency in their development and have the power to shape the course of their own lives, as well as the well-being of their communities and society at large. Environment and experience critically sculpt the developmental process of adolescence, and youth themselves are shaping these experiences and environments. Moreover, adolescents are particularly primed for participation in civic life, and throughout history young people have used their energy, enthusiasm, and passion to inspire and lead social change (Patton et al., 2016).
Engaging adolescents is beneficial for both adolescents themselves and the community as a whole. Opportunities for social and emotional engagement are protective against mental disorders, many of which begin during adolescence (Crone and Dahl, 2012). In contrast, when such opportunities are absent, adolescents may be drawn into antisocial forms of engagement (such as violence, substance abuse, and extremism), which negatively impacts their health and the well-being of their communities (Patton et al., 2016).
In the process of its deliberation and the writing of this report, the committee recognized the value of learning from adolescents about how they perceive their communities, families, and themselves. There is a growing recognition that lived experience—the perceived understanding of day-today life—is evidence in its own right. For decades, qualitative researchers of adolescent health have used adolescents’ lived experiences to understand the embodied experience of various health conditions (Patton et al., 2016). In addition, the public and nonprofit sectors have sought to engage individuals with lived experience in developing effective solutions to social problems, such as homelessness (Region of Waterloo Department of Social Services, 2012) and mental health services (San Mateo County Health, 2017).1
In this spirit, the committee sought the input of a diverse group of adolescents throughout its deliberative process to better understand how young people perceive and engage with the systems intended to serve them. Youth from across the country were engaged to share their knowledge, experiences, and insights with the committee. The methods and results of this youth engagement are described below.
The committee engaged young people through a variety of methods, both in person and virtually. Adolescents from across the United States and from a variety of backgrounds contributed their insights and perceptions. In the course of all of these activities, the committee heard from youth about their priorities for the future and the greatest challenges they currently face.
First, the committee heard from a diverse group of youth panelists at two points during its deliberations. Six adolescents spoke to the committee at a public information-gathering session on June 6, 2018, in Washington, D.C.2 Shyara Hill is a 24-year-old from Philadelphia, where she attends the Community College of Philadelphia and advocates for justice policy reform with the Juvenile Law Center. Marcus Jarvis is a 26-year-old from
2 For videos of the session, see http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BCYF/DBASSE_187987.
Philadelphia and an alumnus of the Juvenile Law Center’s Juveniles for Justice advocacy program. He entered the justice system at age 16 while in foster care and continues to advocate for change in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Nyla Mpofu is a 15-year-old from McLean, Virginia. She has participated in Girl Scouts for 10 years and volunteers extensively in her community. Jocelyn Nolasco is a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park. Since high school, she has worked as a student activist; her current focus is on supporting survivors of sexual assault and trauma. Ayanna Tucker is a master’s degree student at the University of Maryland, College Park. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, and a graduate of Howard University, she plans to pursue a career in public health communications. The young people on the panel responded to a series of questions about their experiences, such as:
- What are the biggest advantages and the biggest disadvantages of growing up in the 21st century?
- What are the biggest misconceptions about youth that adults hold?
- What role does your hometown/neighborhood play in shaping your life?
- How do you interact with your peers?
- How would you change the systems (education, health, justice system, child welfare system) that are supposed to be supporting you?
- What supports do you need to be prepared for the future?
- Who are the people most instrumental in helping you succeed? How could these people be better supported?
- What do you hope your future looks like?
The youth on the panel also shared their reflections on authentic youth engagement. They called for greater involvement of young people in deveoping and implementing programs targeted at them, because they have the firsthand experience to understand the issues. Each expressed a desire to reshape their environments for the benefit of future generations. They mentioned ending the school-to-prison pipeline, justice reform, reducing health disparities, and changing public perceptions of Black youth and youth involved in the justice and child welfare systems.
In addition, a second youth panel was conducted with the Maryland Youth Advisory Council (MYAC) to gather young people’s input on the committee’s recommendations. In December 2018, three committee members and project staff met with three adolescent members of MYAC in Annapolis, Maryland. Darius Craig is the former chair of the council. He is a student at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he studies political science and criminal justice, and a native of Baltimore
City. Caroline Larkin is the current chair of the council and a student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She participated in Air Force Reserve Officer Training Command and is interested in pursuing a career in law. Zachary Caplan served for 2 years on the council as a high school student. Today, he is a sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he studies government and politics; he is interested in pursuing a career in law. Their reflections informed the development of the committee’s recommendations.
Second, the committee commissioned an analysis from the University of Michigan’s MyVoice program to understand adolescents’ own perceptions of the adolescence period and their understanding of and perspectives on inequality in their communities. MyVoice is a national mixed-methods text-message poll of youth ages 14 to 24. Each week, MyVoice sends a series of quantitative and qualitative survey questions via text message to a subset of the 1,400 young people who are enrolled in the poll. The poll allows youth to discuss in their ojwn words their opinions on topics such as health, health care policy, and related issues that affect their health and well-being (DeJonckheere et al., 2017). Participants are given modest incentives for each set of questions they answer.3
In October 2018, two polls with five questions each were administered to the MyVoice sample on behalf of the committee; these questions appear in Box B-1. Eight hundred and forty-six youth responded (a response rate of 75 percent). The responses were reviewed and coded by two investigators from the MyVoice team, who compiled summary statistics and identified major themes. The mean age of the respondents to both sets of questions was 18.5 years. Thirty-six percent identified as male, 57 percent as female, and 7 percent as other. Most (60%) respondents identified as non-Hispanic white, followed by other non-Hispanic races and ethnicities (20%), Hispanic (13%), and Black (8%). About one-third (32%) were enrolled in free and reduced price lunch at their school.
Through these processes, the committee was able to better understand the lived experiences of adolescents from a range of backgrounds. Across the various modes of engagement with the committee, youth expressed both excitement and anxiety about growing up. In addition, they identified three priority areas where adults and systems could help:
- provide support during the transition from adolescence to adulthood;
- provide adequate resources for mental health; and
- respectfully and authentically engage adolescents in decisions that affect them.
Mixed Emotions about Adulthood
The young people that the committee engaged with generally viewed their transition to adulthood with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. About a quarter of the youth in the MyVoice survey expressed excitement about their growing independence, while about 40 percent felt stressed or anxious about the changes. Another quarter expressed both positive and negative emotions. Similarly, youth panelists viewed growing up as both a challenge and an opportunity. As one participant said, “It is a very big change, but I think it allows you to grow a lot if you make the most of the opportunity.”
Young people shared their excitement about shaping their own futures, leading independent lives, and igniting their passions. The young people in the MyVoice survey reported enjoying their growing freedoms, pursuing education and career paths that interested them, and fully exploring their sexual and/or gender identities. “It’s been exciting learning about all the things I can do with myself and preparing my life [to be] fully independent,” said one 21-year-old MyVoice participant. “I can start to see my future shaping up, which is cool.”
Likewise, the youth panelists identified growth and identity formation as two of the markers of adolescence. “You learn about yourself. You become more comfortable with yourself. . . . You are building that identity again,” said one panel participant. For others, developing an identity and future plans were challenging. “It’s been pretty hard, trying to figure out what I believe, what standards I have, what kind of people I like and what kind of person I want to [be],” said one 15-year-old respondent.
The youth panelists also expressed some anxiety about the ongoing changes in their lives. Although some adolescents were excited by their growing autonomy from their families, many others reported struggling with their increased responsibilities and changes in their social and family lives. “I feel like we’re kind of thrown into the real world, and we’re trying to do well in school, maintain healthy relationships, and figure out who we are as a person,” said one 15-year-old participant. “It’s a lot to handle.” A panel participant reiterated this concern, identifying the pressure placed on young people by adults as an additional challenge: “There is just such a pressure to be on top of it and like know who you are that we all kind of like can find a lot of stress within that.” Others reported that the change was too sudden for their liking, and that they felt like they were thrown into adulthood without enough support. “There’s a lot more responsibility you suddenly have, yet don’t necessarily want,” said one 22-year-old respondent.
The Need for Support
Throughout the process, adolescents from various backgrounds reiterated the pressing need for support during their transition from adolescence to young adulthood. For many of the youth the committee spoke to, taking on adult responsibilities for the first time was a common source of stress, particularly when they felt they lacked the knowledge or experience to do things on their own. As one 15-year-old respondent said, “The hardest part has been people thinking I’m responsible and mature enough to do adult tasks that require more knowledge than I have.”
Learning to pay bills, budget and save money, make doctor’s appointments, and make decisions about their future were all identified as sources of stress by participants in the MyVoice poll. One 16-year-old participant said, “All of a sudden there are lots of expectations piled on you and in school you didn’t learn enough about how taxes work or how you’re going to support yourself.” Likewise, the youth panelists recalled feeling stressed and confused when they had to do certain “adult tasks” on their own for the first time.
Many youth identified the lack of preparation for the “real world” as a cause of that stress. “There isn’t a whole lot of preparation from being a kid to suddenly takin[g] care of yourself and other people and paying bills while going to school while getting good grades and figuring out what to do with your life,” said a 22-year-old MyVoice respondent. For both the youth panelists and the MyVoice respondents, youth reported their desire for more structured classes in schools on how to perform necessary adult tasks such as taxes and finances. Participants asked for “clear, straightforward guidance” and a “primer on adult life” to help them take on their growing responsibilities. As one youth panelist said, “in school, they should be teaching you how to prepare for real-life situations. . . . I’m going to school to learn, I should be learning all that necessary stuff that I need for life too.” In addition, youth called for more job training and shadowing
opportunities so that they could explore different career paths and prepare for full-time work.
Similarly, the adolescents who participated identified mentorship as important for helping them navigate adolescence and the transition to adulthood. One panelist credited his success in college to mentors in his community: “I had community members that have helped shield me from everything—all of the noise in the background.” Whether they wanted help exploring career paths or embodying their sexual and gender identities, adolescents expressed a need for trusted adults to take on a mentorship role in their lives.
Mental Health Supports
The young adults the committee engaged were very clear in their need for more and better mental health services. Adolescents in both the MyVoice survey and the youth panels identified a lack of mental health services in their communities, with one panelist describing the situation at her school as “dire.” “Everyone feels stressed at some point,” she noted, and “you should be able to have these resources” to cope with challenges available. Throughout the youth engagement process, young people called upon the systems that adolescents engage with and the adults who work within those systems to better serve their mental health needs.
In addition, youth noted the need to destigmatize mental illness. “Being young, having a mental disorder, it puts you at such vulnerability because you have to face the stigmas from everyone around you,” one panelist noted. Although the participants expressed some optimism that the stigma around mental health was lessening, “it is still not even close to where it needs to be.” They called upon adults to do more to change the culture around mental health, and noted that having positive relationships with the adults in their lives can help them navigate their mental health challenges.
A third theme that emerged from the committee’s engagement with youth was the desire for authentic and respectful engagement of adolescents. The young people the committee engaged noted a lack of respect for youth. “People don’t treat teenagers like kids, but they also don’t treat us like adults yet,” said one 17-year-old MyVoice participant. A youth panel-
ist suggested that the perceived lack of urgency around policy issues that affect children and young people is due to their lesser power in the political sphere. “Because we are not a voting constituency, in my opinion, a lot of times, that is what makes the problem less important,” he said. Although some adults are supportive of young people’s engagement in policy issues, there is still a lack of respect for youth voices in decision making, he continued. “You can get a microphone. We can scream and make as much noise as we want. The thing is I would say very rarely is that actually like listened to. It is kind of held for the sake of, okay, we need to get some opinion as to what young people want, except then the thing is nothing is really done with that.”
In recognition of the importance of engaging adolescents in research and policy, the committee used several mechanisms to hear directly from young people across the country. Through in-person meetings and virtual polls, adolescents from a range of backgrounds shared their insights and perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing young people today. The adolescents that the committee engaged identified the need for supports for taking on adult responsibilities, better mental health resources, and authentic and respectful engagement from adults as their priorities. Society has a responsibility to listen to and engage with young people in decisions that affect them. By recognizing the importance of young people’s knowledge and implementing structures and systems that enable youth to engage, society can ensure that youth voices are heard.
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