Why Designing a Meaningful Youth Engagement Strategy is Like Solving a Puzzle

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Image of colorful puzzle pieces

At IYF, we have been meaningfully engaging with young people since our founding over three decades ago. From supporting students in rural Louisiana to advocate for changes in their community, to funding youth-led social change efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, partnering with young people to increase access to opportunity and strengthen systems is part of our organizational DNA.  

This past year, we spent a lot of time re-assessing and revising our overall approach to meaningful youth engagement (MYE) to better align with our strategy and values, communicate our expertise, and build our MYE toolkit and evidence base. In our new MYE technical brief, you can read more about why we view the design of relevant MYE strategies as puzzles to be solved.  

Admittedly, when I was tasked to lead this effort, I was resistant. Why should we develop a new framework when so many good ones already exist? There are many people and organizations whose work I frequently consult and deeply respect. In the process of analyzing what already exists, however, there were some important critiques and opportunities that emerged that I’m glad we were able to address.  

Whether you are a donor, young leader, public official, private sector actor, or implementing partner, here are three things I love about IYF's MYE approach I hope you consider:  

It is flexible & modular—our framework, centered around the puzzle visual, recognizes that youth engagement is not linear and that a “one size fits all” approach does not capture the importance of different types and degrees of engagement. While every MYE strategy may need the same structure and component parts, the puzzle pieces can and should look very different depending on one’s objectives, context, partners, and previous experience. We are excited to explore which of the framework’s eight domains emerge as priorities for our partners, including the young people we work with to co-design, implement, and evaluate development interventions. For some who are just starting their MYE journey, the most helpful question they can ask themselves might be, “What roles could young people play in my project or organization?” For others who have established partnerships and platforms, they might be keen to improve diversity and inclusion in their activities, assess and improve existing relationships, or better capture and communicate their results.    

It is sector agnostic & systems conversant—IYF’s MYE programming takes place in many different contexts and ways, with a diverse group of stakeholders, and for a variety of purposes. We facilitate MYE in projects, communities, and systems and use an array of participatory mechanisms. Our framework and approaches are designed to account for this complexity and be as useful to educators and employers as they are for health workers, policymakers, extension agents, caretakers, and young people themselves. If you think some of our puzzle pieces, like roles, relationships, resources, and results sound reminiscent of various systems change frameworks you’ve seen before, you are right. We did that on purpose. IYF often acts as a convener in various systems that are relevant for youth and facilitating collective changes to make those systems more inclusive of and responsive to young people is a major focus of our strategy.  

It is accessible & culturally sensitive—at their best, frameworks help summarize complex ideas in simple, compelling ways. At their worst, they are full of jargon and only relevant for or representative of certain perspectives. As a global organization, we aspire to develop tools and resources that can help our local staff and implementing partners engage their communities and public and private sector actors in productive conversations about how we can all do better work for and with young people and support the initiatives being led by them. Our work takes place in many different places, where the emphasis on children’s rights, individual expression, and the value of intergenerational dialogue or partnership may vary. A strong framework should provide the scaffolding to support context- and culturally relevant conversations and decisions, not offer normative prescriptions for what young people should do in any setting. Our framework will support relevant stakeholders to understand and value youth engagement and collaborate to identify opportunities to provide more meaningful support or partnership.  

Learn more about IYF's approach to Meaningful Youth Engagement in our new Technical Brief.  

Sarah Jonson is IYF's Technical Advisor for Youth Agency and Engagement. 

youth engagement