As youth media professionals, it is our job to ensure that the voices of young people are heard. But do we make room for young people’s voices within our own organizations? If one of the main goals within the youth media field is to promote youth voice, we must ensure that we listen to the needs and desires of the young people we serve by integrating leadership opportunities for them within organizations.
At 15, I found VOX, an after-school program in Atlanta, Georgia, that uses the publishing process to teach skills and develop young leaders. As an aspiring journalist, I thought I was taking the necessary steps to ensure my enrollment in a top journalism program. But that changed. And it started when an older teen at VOX asked a group of us if anyone would be interested in serving on the organization’s Board of Directors. I raised my hand—I figured, the more involved I could get the better my chances of entering a top journalism program would be.
Soon, I was one of four teens who joined the board, and all of a sudden I was learning what 501(c)(3) meant and reviewing the organization’s budget. Through my involvement on the board, I developed a passion for—and more importantly, an understanding of—nonprofit organizations. I was able to act as an intermediary between my peers and adults in the program. So, when teens wanted to organize a trip—say, to New York to visit New Youth Connections, I was able to facilitate a conversation with my peers to create a budget and raise the money to make such a trip possible.
As I took on more leadership opportunities at VOX, often working as a team with my peers, I became integrally involved in program development. In fact, I was part of a group of young women who founded VOX’s “girls only” writing group called Epiphany. We had started informally meeting and chatting behind closed doors in the office and eventually approached staff that we needed a girls-only group. The adults were open to the idea and helped us engage in a conversation to express and examine why we needed a group and what would be different as a result. They asked us questions to go-deeper, which helped us develop a comprehensive program with outcomes and a supportive mechanism for evaluation.
As a testament of adults successfully recognizing and supporting young people to lead, 10 years later, Epiphany is still in full swing at VOX. Epiphany is successful because every year each teen member is responsible for developing program content and evaluation. In training participants in the finer points of mission-related programming and knowing when to step back so teens develop “ownership” of their work, VOX truly validated the “youth” in youth media.
It would hypocritical for youth media educators not to provide a forum for our constituents to speak up about our organizations. Young people know what they need, and it’s our job to give them a forum to express those needs.
However, now, as an adult in the youth-media field, I have been surprised by the organizations that do not provide opportunities for young people to serve on the organization’s board—or support a youth advisory board. Organizations whose main objective is to make sure youth are heard unfortunately can forget to hear the voices of the teens they seek to engage.
It is comforting, however, that community-wide programs, such as the United Way, are promoting youth-led programs for adolescents as a best practice. In fact, their branch in Atlanta, Georgia encourages all of its grantee partners to take an active role in educating other organizations about the importance of engaging and valuing youth—including organizations outside the youth media spectrum. Even insurance companies like State Farm value youth leadership—so much so that they provide their youth advisory board with a $5 million dollar annual budget. Youth media organizations need to set the precedence for the nonprofit sector—it is in the roots of our existence that we uphold the “youth” in youth media.
As nonprofit organizations that serve youth, we must realize that we are not only media organizations—we are youth development organizations. In order to develop young people, we must provide opportunities for skill building and leadership development—above and beyond our particular medium—so they can reach their potential during their short and important time with us. Engaging young people in decision-making provides the best possible support for young people and our organizations.
Today, as a nonprofit/youth-media professional, I remain committed to the youth-led nature of our programming. I am proud that VOX listens to youth internally while projecting their voices externally. Youth-led organizations with programming conceived by and for teens, with the support of caring adults, are most effective in reaching and engaging youth voice.
Anna Kelly is the Associate Director at VOX Teen Communications in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 1996, Anna has been involved at VOX as a teen, intern, board member and staff member.