No, the kids are not all right.
School closures and lockdowns have forced Canadian youth to miss milestones and adapt their lifestyles, routines and relationships in unprecedented ways to ensure their safety and the safety of their communities. Ineligibility for vaccination and a lack of proactive, comprehensive safety measures in school jurisdictions across Canada have put many at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 – an illness whose long-term consequences on development are still being studied.
Academics, researchers, educators and politicians have all voiced their opinions and observations about how the pandemic has wreaked havoc on children and youths’ health and well-being. Missing from the conversation? The kids.
Research reveals that empowering youth and facilitating meaningful youth partnerships within health-related services and programs can lead to better health outcomes. When youth are involved in agenda-setting, decision-making, implementation and evaluation, they shape programs and services in ways that benefit them and their communities. They develop new skills and perspectives and are connected to networks and resources that may have been inaccessible.
This special series aims to bring Canadian youth to the forefront and provide youth aged 12 to 19 with a direct platform to shed light on the impacts of the pandemic and help inform short- and long-term recovery measures and advocacy strategies for youth services within communities, educational settings and the health-care system.
This series reflects the cultural shift in acknowledging and advocating for meaningful youth partnerships. And it’s starting to be reflected in more mainstream, wider-scale movements such as the recent, nation-wide consultation of more than 1,500 stakeholders in the Canadian child and youth sector called Inspiring Healthy Futures that has identified youth participation as a priority to ensure children and youth can thrive.
Youth partnership means that organizations are actively and intentionally forming relationships with youth to work on the issues, programs and policies that impact them. Meaningful partnership with youth means that power is shared and equal, youth input is valued, and youth feel empowered to be agents of change in their communities. Youth partnerships can be found across many sectors and systems, often in the form of advisory committees or ambassadorships specifically for youth.
So, how can we establish meaningful, equity-informed youth partnerships? Conversations with more than 30 youth advisory councils across Canada working to improve health outcomes and quality of life reveal a few strategies.
Invest resources and funding into youth partnerships
Compensating young people for their time and effort, providing resources and opportunities for skill and infrastructure development are important. Compensation may come in the form of gift cards, reference letters for jobs and school or providing community service hours to meet school requirements.
Program funders need a better understanding of the resources needed to bring young people together to push for change. Creating a culture in which meaningful youth engagement is prioritized shows they are valued experts who can make a difference. Organizational and sector champions are key players in helping this come about.
Missing from the conversation? The kids.
The Sandbox Impact Program is an example of a program that is boosting capacity for youth partnership. The program provides targeted microgrants and in-kind support to build and maintain youth partnerships for initiatives that address the health and well-being of young Canadians. Examples of initiatives include: a youth-led video series on mental health experiences; consultations with youth to co-develop national equitable standards for youth transitioning from care to adulthood; and a community-based, youth-led workshop that uses music to help other youth learn life skills.
Work with youth to create opportunities, spaces and processes to establish meaningful partnerships
Having young people in leadership roles gives them ownership and fosters confidence. Creating youth advisory committees that work closely within organizations is one way to have a formal structure and ensure issues important to that age group are on the table. But partnerships must not be tokenistic, meaning youth must be empowered to make decisions rather than be recruited to participate in superficial ways to perform rote, menial tasks.
Shared partnerships facilitate empowerment and enable a degree of autonomy. In Canada, this is exemplified by advisory committees such as the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health (YCRH), a national, youth-run, youth-led advisory committee that focuses on advocating for youth health. YCRH members run their own social media and online platforms, manage their own voting and decision-making, and participate in monthly skills development that is beneficial to their personal and professional growth.
Equity, diversity and accessibility must be the forefront of all youth partnership
There is the adage “go to where the youth are,” and this holds true when it comes to meaningful youth partnerships that are equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible. Putting in the extra effort to build relationships with community organizations, local schools, community centres and places where youth frequent can go a long way toward building trust and getting youth to engage. This is key to getting representative membership at decision-making tables.
Engagement strategies that work with adults may not be effective with youths. Trust-building is essential. It can start with ensuring that they are provided with safe spaces so all youth feel comfortable participating and are included. One way to do this is to ensure that youth engagement is trauma-informed, which entails adopting practices that consider the impact of trauma on their lives. PREVNet and Wisdom2Action have developed a tip sheet on trauma-informed youth engagement, along with strategies for implementation.
Real youth partnership means having flexible processes and supports in place to ensure all can participate. Youth have varying experiences, comfort levels, priorities and ability to commit. Having mostly mandatory tasks and roles can be alienating. Providing dynamic and meaningful ways to get involved as well as the supports that youth require will allow youth to contribute in ways that align with their strengths and ability to commit. The CHILD-BRIGHT National Youth Advisory Panel, for example, is made up of members who have brain-based developmental disabilities. CHILD-BRIGHT provides accommodations and supports such as live translation and captioning during meetings and adapts materials for easier understanding or enables text to speech. Similarly, many mental health-based youth committees have a mental health worker on call for support if discussions are triggering for youth.
The pandemic has highlighted existing flaws and inequities and it is youth who will face the consequences of poor, inequitable decision-making as we move forward. It is important, now more than ever, that meaningful, equity-informed youth partnerships are integrated into organizations, institutions and systems.