The National Network for Youth (NN4Y) is a membership organization that represents runway and homeless youth programs. For over 40 years, the NN4Y has worked to ensure that the needs of youth and young adults facing homelessness are addressed and that their voices and experiences are respected in the systems and policies designed to help them. Its first members listened to the young people they served as they pushed to include the Runaway Youth Act (predecessor to the current Runaway and Homeless Youth Act) in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act when it was first passed in 1974.
Let Them Speak for Themselves
As NN4Y grew and evolved, it became committed to creating meaningful opportunities for young people to take a part in influencing the national policies that impact their lives and, over the past 20 years, has moved to place their expertise at the center of all aspects of its work. Elevating the best practices for youth engagement has ensured providers on the ground convene youth advisory councils to inform everything they do—from program design and delivery to the way local systems can best support young people and the organizations and public agencies that serve them. This guarantees that environments are welcoming to the youth they serve—whether by providing programming they desire or by placing programs in buildings that are accessible to all youth in a community.
Building on these experiences, NN4Y created its National Youth Advisory Council in 2014 to continue incorporating young leaders in the work to influence public policy and strengthen effective responses to youth homelessness. The council empowers formerly homeless, trafficked, and foster youth to utilize their expertise on youth homelessness in defining policy agendas and educating the public, youth service providers, and policymakers. Most of these youth have interacted with the child welfare, juvenile justice, and/or homelessness systems and use the challenges and successes of their personal journeys to inform and transform existing policies.
The organization has also sought to support and help grow the skills of young leaders nationally. As experts in their own lives, young people with lived experience are the most effective advocates. During NN4Y’s annual national gathering on March 19–20, 2018, in Washington, D.C., young leaders worked to educate providers from across the county on best practices for meaningful youth participation in service design and delivery and advocated directly for policy change. Some of the young leaders played key roles in NN4Y’s Council on Youth Policy and other governance bodies.
Including young leaders as equal partners in shaping NN4Y’s practice and policy work has helped to grow the next generation of adult leaders. Several of these former youth are now leading voices as adults in the national movement to end youth and young adult homelessness. In fact, our experience indicates that to effectively address the issues youth face today, adult leaders and organizations must increase the number of dedicated and trained young leaders who are prepared to take an active role shaping policies and practices in a way that is informed by their lived experience.
The Power of Firsthand Accounts
Partnerships, including work with the ABA, have allowed us to witness the impact on children’s rights that happens when youth leadership is done differently—when young people’s leadership development is supported and when they work alongside us to inform and change policies and systems.
We have witnessed a young man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo travel to Brazil to speak at the International Summit on the Legal Rights of Street Connected Children and Youth, to share how, despite the violence his family could face because he chose to stand up for children’s rights, he speaks because he believes youth voices matter.
We have witnessed a young woman who became homeless after aging out of foster care go from wondering if her voice mattered to opening a youth drop in center in her hometown of Detroit and speaking at events around the country, because she knows her voice matters.
We have witnessed a young person who was abandoned at 13-years-old in Alaska after coming out as transgender sit in an office on Capitol Hill with a U.S. senator and senior advisors, braving nervousness to share their story and advocate for legislation and funding to support programs like the one that helped them transition from homelessness to college, because they believe the rights and lives of young people matter.
We have seen a young leader in Chicago influence policymakers to support a new municipal ID because she shared her story of being a homeless teenage mother who could not access a food bank to feed herself and her child because she, like many homeless young people, lacked a valid government ID.
These are just some of the stories that bear witness to what is possible when we foster the potential that already lies within every young person and create meaningful opportunities for them to influence key decision makers who are writing or shaping policies. These young leaders can accomplish what an organization without them cannot.
NN4Y had tried for several years to get the U.S. senator mentioned above to co-sponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act. In a thirty-minute meeting with the senator, the young leader mentioned shared their experience and accomplished what paid advocates for an over 40-year-old organization could not. Because of that young leader using their voice, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski cosponsored the bill, and her staff emailed the young leader the following week to inform them that she had done so.
Youth Leadership Today
Young people are the most underutilized resource available to us in our work and in this world. As advocates we must stop asking questions about their competence, passion, or ability to impact and rather ask whether we are willing to see them as more than “the reason we do this work.” We should view them as full partners in this work.
The next time one of us sits with a young person as their lawyer, judge, social worker, or program director, before assuming we know exactly what they need, let’s ask them. The next time they march or advocate for their rights, let’s march and advocate beside them. The next time we revise organizational policies or create strategic plans to better serve them, let’s engage them. The next time they raise their voices and open their minds to say what they need from us to help them help themselves, let’s listen to them. As we move forward as leaders and advocates dedicated to fighting this critical and necessary fight for children’s rights, let’s not do it without them.
Youth leadership today and tomorrow involves more than organizational leaders speaking on behalf of young people across our country and world—it means inviting them into our offices, board rooms, and conferences to consciously cultivate space for their lived experiences, grievances, and proposed solutions. By doing this, we will educate both adults and young leaders and will improve our ability to achieve our mission. Youth leadership today involves not merely giving young people opportunities and platforms to speak but providing space for true dialogue that allows their voices to inform policies and practices and ultimately transform the very systems we are working to change.
When we reflect on the past 20 years of our partnership with young leaders to advocate for children’s rights, we should recognize and celebrate the many accomplishments made on behalf of, and by, young people. Moreover, we must acknowledge and act on one of the greatest opportunities for strengthening our work on children’s rights over the next 20 years: continued intergenerational collaborations between young people and adults, continued support and engagement as today’s young leaders transition to adult leaders, and continuously engaging the next generation of future young leaders.
There is no better time than the present to be moved to action with the nation’s youngest and most vulnerable population. But when we move forward, let us not work to create change only for them but in partnership with them. NN4Y will remain committed to our guiding principles of valuing and empowering youth, and we will continue to support the development of young leaders and ensure that their voices are heard and acted on by practitioners and policymakers. Let us all dare to be leaders audacious enough to believe young people are capable, conscious, and courageous enough to help lead us in achieving many more accomplishments in this field.