Incorporating youths voice in 4-H advisory groups

Three frameworks for 4-H advisory groups in order to incorporate youths voice in decision making.

Previous articles by Michigan State University Extension have examined the many benefits to youth, adults and organizations when youth are engaged in partnership with adults to make decisions. Youth-serving organizations that utilize volunteer advisory groups, such as 4-H, are well positioned to make youths voice a priority by incorporating it within the structure of the organization.   Simply saying, “all ages welcomed,” is rarely enough to generate regular participation and insightful input from youth.  A variety of ways youth’s voice can be incorporated into the structure of advisory groups are outline below.

  • Youth delegates/representatives- Organizations might include a few designated spaces for youth on their committees.  This is often a starting point, but rarely a true youth-adult partnership, as the youth are usually greatly outnumbered by adults and often asked to speak on behalf of all youth.  This structure lays the ground work for youth-adult partnerships, but organizers must be careful to avoid tokenism that forcing one youth to speak on behalf of all youth. 
  • Shared leadership- Youth-centered organizations especially might consider having youth and adults share officer or leadership roles.  For example, utilizing both a youth and an adult president.  This system sets up a built-in mentoring relationship between a youth and adult and increases the youths’ investment in the organization by giving them a meaningful leadership role.  This structure also provides a safe setting for youth to practice sometimes challenging leadership roles with a supportive adult assigned to assist when needed.   
  • Youth vote, adults advise- This structure is especially common in organizations where the emphasis is placed on youth decision-making.  Michigan 4-H Youth Development is an example of where this model is commonly used.  4-H clubs are intended to be led by youth with input from supportive adults.  Some county wide 4-H advisory groups also employ a structure where only youth vote, but adults serve in advisory roles.  This shifts the power balance intentionally to the youth.  It doesn’t discount the importance of adults in supportive roles, and maintains their voice at meetings, but it forces adults to engage youth fully in decision-making processes of the organization. 

4-H is in a position to lead by example with community organizations in taking steps to make sure their advisory groups have meaningful input from youth. One of Michigan 4-H Youth Development’s Guiding Principles reads, “Youth are considered participants rather than recipients in the learning process.”  All community organizations may find value in utilizing youth voice by employing one of the models listed above.

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