Facilitating distance meetings with youth

Using technology helps encourage youth voice in webinars and conference calls.

Michigan 4-H Youth Development feels strongly about the importance of incorporating youth voice in decision-making.  One of the seven Guiding Principles of Michigan 4-H is, “youth are considered participants rather than recipients in the learning process.”  4-H believes that planning an event or activity of any size can be a powerful learning opportunity for youth.  For this reason, the Leadership and Civic Engagement work groups strive to include youth participants in the planning committees for their major events. 

Plans are now underway for the 2014 4-H Capitol Experience event, which involves nine youth and ten adults on the steering committee.  Because steering committee members reside all over the state of Michigan, most of the meetings are facilitated using a conference call.  While most Michigan State University Extension staff are well-accustomed to conference call etiquette, this is often a new experience for youth.  In order to make the call a little less intimidating, staff have come up with the following methods to make them feel more comfortable.

  • Send an agenda for the call ahead of time.  Provide youth with an opportunity to prepare their thoughts well in advance of the call.  Youth are struggling with two different anxieties on a first-time conference call; suggesting meaningful ideas and speaking up appropriately without any visual cues.  An agenda sent out early can help eliminate some of that anxiety by allowing them to formulate their ideas giving them the ability to contribute to the conversation.
  • Explain conference call etiquette.  Along with the agenda, it’s helpful to tell youth what they can expect about a conference call.  For example, should they announce their name when they are connected?  Is there a way for them to mute their phone to eliminate background noise for others?  It may also be helpful to mention that often on conference calls silence indicates agreement and not to be intimidated by what may seem like awkward silences. 
  • Utilize technology to make visuals available on the call.  Since youth are generally very comfortable with technology, consult them to see if they have ideas for visuals or virtual meeting spaces that might be feasible with a large group.  A simple visual involves placing the agenda or notes from the call in a web space that everyone can view, so that incase people get distracted, they can easily find their way back into the conversation.  Available technologies include, but are not limited to Skype, Google Hangout and Adobe Connect.  Consider asking youth members to take the lead with this part of the conference call in order to get them invested in the process.
  • Make efforts to introduce members so everyone can associate faces with names.  It’s always easier to express opinions in a room with familiar faces.  If it’s been a while since the group has met, or they have never met in person, it’s important to share photos of the group members.  This can be done using many of the technology suggestions listed above.
  • Don’t forget icebreakers.  Icebreakers serve an important role in face-to-face meetings, but shouldn’t be ignored when connecting virtually. Start the conversation by asking everyone to participate in a silly poll question, or have everyone introduce themselves with their name and an answer to a simple question (their favorite hobby, their most recent vacation or even what they can see at this moment).  This helps people connect and freely speak their opinions.  Other ice breaker ideas have been created by MSU Extension as well. 

Youth can add great value to discussions when involved in authentic decision-making partnerships with adults.  By taking the time to incorporate youth voice into planning, organizations can gain insight, energy and solutions to real-life problems.

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