The Case Against Youth-Led Advocacy

by Michael Place

Which model would you prefer for child welfare reform advocacy: A youth-led program, or a youth-adult partnership?

The former model (we’ll call it YLM) calls for youth to set their own agenda and to lead and carry out their own initiatives. In this model, adults play very minor roles in reform initiatives. In a youth-adult partnership (Y-AP), adult advocates, policy makers and youth, form a partnership where their opinions are weighed equally to produce reform initiatives.

Michael Place

As a young professional foster care advocate, I believe the Y-AP is the way to go. While the YLM has had many successes, it’s extremely problematic.

While the insights of foster youth should be at the forefront of conversations about policies and practices that affect them, I would argue that it is best that such conversations are held with foster youth, not led by foster youth.

I have been in a few meetings where the conversations that are led by youth do not get very far. In one particular meeting, I remember the adults in the room were asked to leave, so that the youth members could work out a complex issue alone.

I was allowed to stay in the room and watch as the youth strived to move forward with the issue. Without adequate leadership, the youth struggled to hear each other out, resulting in shouting and various other unproductive displays of frustration.

This issue of ineffective communication in the YLM has a direct impact on the ability of advocacy organizations to achieve their mission. The same organization that hosted the aforementioned meeting recently created an internship for its Los Angeles-based chapters, and hired interns with skill sets of conflict resolution and group dynamics instead of interns with skill sets in policy reform. For an organization with a mission of creating policy changes in foster care, that is a huge opportunity cost.

YLM assumes that youth have the skills and the time to produce projects, when in actuality because of school, work and limited experience, this is proven to be untrue. In the end, the projects rarely reach fruition because of poor implementation and while a few young leaders shine, many others are hidden in their shadows.

Proponents of the YLM believe that it is the best way youth can heal their traumatic histories with adults. This philosophy,  however, is incredibly destructive because in the real world, it will prove itself to be untrue. Youth should instead be taught how to talk and work with adults, not lead them.

In the conversations I’ve had with professional advocates, it’s clear that they understand some of the drawbacks of the YLM, but they insist that there is power in the youth learning from their mistakes.

I tend to agree; but do we have the time? Don’t forget why we do this work. The longer we take, the more children’s lives are ruined by poor policies and practices. We don’t have the luxury of time. If we really care to change as many lives as we can, we will follow the best model to get us there.

It is because of these first hand experiences with the drawbacks of the YLM that I must push for the Y-AP. In this model, adults create a space for youth to share their opinions and insights into structuring policy reform initiatives. Youth and adults will be spread around the room, equally sharing space while a healthy debate infuses.

As voting commences, both youth and adults raise their hands in favor of what they believe in. When it comes time to assigning responsibilities, adults and youth take on an equal set of tasks that are distributed based upon their strengths and weaknesses.

In practice, the Y-AP model will force youth and adults to learn how to speak to each other. It will challenge the notion that any one party has all of the answers and instead welcome a diversity of opinions. In the end, adult and youth leaders learn from one another and produce optimal change.

Michael Place is a former foster youth and current college student working on child welfare reform in Los Angeles

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  1. I would have to disagree with that point. The Youth led, Youth driven program I am a part of, no shouting is happening. We all bring up ideas that we think should get worked on. Then we put them up for a vote to see which one we all think would work, would pass. We, in the past 5 years, have passed 4 bills into Law here in Oregon. So tell how is it that all YLM “struggle to hear each other out” if my group has done so much good without that struggle?

    • Michael I’m so glad that you are committed to using your experience in foster care to advocate for change and I’m so excited to see you developing your voice and really thinking through organizing tactics. I think it’s necessary to promote both methods of organizing to address the problems with foster care. I think you’re so right to note that youth and adults need to learn how to speak eachother and hear eachother. That’s why I think it’s important for youth and adults to organize both together and separately to strategize what changes are necessary, and how they think they might be able to achieve them. I think as well as youth healing their trauma with adults, its also crucial for youth to have self-determination to identify where their needs and ideas overlap with eachother before adults impose their ideas. Meetings (of youth, or adults, or both together) can get heated- because people have good reasons to be upset!- and groups can take time to cohere and find unity and clarity, but I think its worth the time to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and its worth the mutual personal growth that comes from learning how to own and address conflict and difference. As a former caseworker in foster care I recognize the role I played as a gatekeeper, speaking on behalf of youth to other providers. I often felt that other providers weren’t listening to youth speaking on their own behalf, and was sometimes maybe too quick to jump in and try to control the situation, although it was a dynamic I was aware of and sought to avoid. What was often more effective and almost always more empowering was when a young person made their own case- whether through explaining their situation calmly, or making enough noise to finally be reckoned with (the squeakiest wheel catches the grease). Youth I worked with are some of my most important role models, and I learned A LOT about how to stay strong and determined and not to accept compromises that are unacceptable.

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