As a young woman born and raised in Kenya, I've had the privilege of engaging in positive youth development (PYD) programming on two levels: as a participant, and also in more active leadership and collaborator roles. My involvement in these programs has provided me with exposure to the challenges faced by young people from different communities, and I've also gained valuable first-hand work experience in the world of impact and development, both regionally and globally.

Now, I’m working full time on the other side of the table. In my new role as the Fellowship Coordinator at the Billion Girls CoLab, a girls’ fellowship program at IDEO.org, I’m helping to answer a critical question: how should young people be meaningfully engaged when it comes to social impact activities and decision-making processes that involve their wellbeing? Based partly on my lived experience as a young person and partly on the technical experience I acquired while serving in various roles, I believe when youth engagement is intentional, appropriate, and targeted to meaningfully benefit a specific group it can strengthen Positive Youth Development (PYD) programs and help to sustainably transform systems and communities. Below are four pointers that inform the work I do:

  1. Right from the start, place youth in the driver's seat during program design. Involve young people during the early stages of activity planning. It's key to learn the level and type of engagement they can confidently play, and then let decision makers know the kinds of tools, resources, and support young people will require to effectively deliver. In addition, it's important early on to address, in real time, the barriers that may inhibit a young person's engagement. All this has not only budgetary implications when it comes to returns on investment on donor funds, but also affects how young people will resonate with your program activities in the long run. 
  2. Be clear about objectives and expected outcomes before you engage young people. Reaching a clearly aligned understanding of what both parties–young people and organizations wishing to engage with them—aim to achieve for themselves and their communities will help address the unmet needs and expectations of young people’s involvement. The greatest outcome of any development or impact program is when young people feel connected to their community's needs and challenges and are inspired—and empowered—to transform them as a result of your engagement with them.
  3. Don't just seek out young people’s inputalso make sure to acknowledge its worth. Young people are more likely to engage when their contributions and efforts are recognized, so it's important to acknowledge the value young people bring to your program and to their communities. It gives them the motivation to keep advocating for various causes and giving them visibility to other stakeholders. To this end, provide adaptable tools and a safe space where they can expressively share their thoughts. Continually collect their feedback to identify program gaps, effectively cater to their needs, and address timely issues that may affect the program's goals. 
  4. Provide opportunities and resources within your organization to help young people hone their leadership capabilities. This is a perfect way to advance the youth-adult partnership component. When a young person is equipped with the right communication, advocacy, and community-engagement skills then they are less likely to be influenced by the opinions of “experts/adults.” Instead, they are more likely to lean on their own capabilities when addressing the issues that affect their lives. Ultimately, this informs why youth-serving practitioners should engage young people as equal thought partners and experts in their own lived experiences and break the traditional approach in development of only engaging young people as participants of their programs.

For a different perspective on what youth engagement should look like, check out this companion blog post by my friend and colleague Sarah Jonson—Technical Advisor, Youth Agency & Engagement at IYF. 

Christabel Netondo is currently serving as the Youth Advisor for USAID’s Youth Engagement Community of Practice and as the Fellowship Coordinator for the Billion Girls CoLab. Christabel is dedicated to shifting powers and policies that affect the livelihoods of young people and their communities. Connect with her on LinkedIn