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Empowering Youth to Help Transform Communities

The places we live are a core part of who we are. They affect our accomplishments, our perspectives, our sense of hope, and our overall well-being. It is this truth, coupled with the reality of deep poverty in many U.S. cities, that has driven the significant annual investments in place-based development efforts. The strategies implemented to enhance the health, safety, and economic opportunity for residents of these communities range widely. One important strategy is engaging and empowering youth. The next generation has been shown to be powerful change agents in their communities and therefore critical to our communities’ health and our nation’s success.1 Specifically, research has shown that with intentional investments of time, skills, leadership, and new opportunities, youth from disadvantaged communities can thrive as leaders, empower those around them, and work for community change while simultaneously charting new futures for themselves (Barnett & Brennan, 2006; Fulford & Thompson, 2013; Ginwright & James, 2002; Kirshner & Ginwright, 2012; Percy-Smith & Burns, 2013; Schwartz & Suyemoto, 2013; Stoneman, 2002).

Despite this evidence, most community development or revitalization efforts do not actively seek to empower youth to be meaningfully involved. Some change leaders do not know the potential that youth can bring; others do understand but have tried unsuccessfully to engage youth in previous efforts. In this article, we discuss core principles to consider when engaging youth in community change efforts in the hope that more initiatives will fruitfully engage youth, for the ultimate benefit of both youth and the broader community.

Principles for empowering and engaging youth in community change2

Principle #1: Emphasis needs to be placed on individual youth empowerment and then on how that can lead to community empowerment. Youth typically need coaching to help them see the strength and opportunity in themselves. This coaching can involve mentoring to help youth see different ways their lives can grow and evolve. Youth from disadvantaged areas often also need a vision for their communities. This may include conversations about community strengths and sharing examples of similarly disadvantaged communities that have brought about change and the roles that youth played in that change. Creating a safe environment for youth to learn and grow helps them to begin to thrive and expand their vision for the future. If this environment also speaks of the needs of community and the way that youth can help to improve their communities, youth become eager to engage in action to improve life in their communities. Skipping over the empowerment process, as is often the case in traditional community development efforts, results in youth without a sense of how they can bring about change and, therefore, limited interest in being involved.

Principle #2: Youth need to be given the opportunity to participate in meaningful ways, including sharing power with the adults involved. Many successful youth empowerment programs provide incremental opportunities for youth to learn and build their capacity in a context of responsibility and decision-making. For example, youth might first design and implement a small improvement on their path to school. After completing this task, they might work together to implement a small service project together designed by the youth. As their confidence and capacity increase, it is critical that they be included in the planning, decision-making, and community development activities, including opportunities to share power with the adults. Successful programs also connect these opportunities for leadership with coaching from more experienced persons. This coaching might include helping the youth prepare for and debrief from leadership moments. The goal is to help the youth grow in their learning and empower them to effectively participate as members of their communities.

Principle #3: Community development efforts, particularly those that empower youth, need to acknowledge, respect, and engage with the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity present in the community. The urban neighborhoods where community development efforts are implemented are often racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse. This means that multiple communities exist in a neighborhood that are defined by different attributes, from age to race. As such, it is important to devise strategies that acknowledge and help to address this reality of “difference and unity” in neighborhoods due to the multitude of communities based on different attributes and social identities (Checkoway, 2011). These include strategies that consider the role of youth in different cultures. For instance, in some immigrant groups, older youth have the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings or contributing to the family income, in addition to attending school and participating in extracurricular activities. Therefore, the engagement strategy has to appropriately fit youth of different age ranges, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

Principle #4: Relationships need to be built between youth and adults that demonstrate their interconnectedness, ultimately leading to awareness and change. Broader youth development and sense of community literature emphasizes that community members, whether they be youth or adults, need to have a sense of belonging and be able to relate to other members of the community, seeing how their internal contentment and overall well-being are affected by the struggles and successes of other citizens in their community (Brendtro et al., 1990, 2005; Chavis, 2010). Research suggests that actions that build social networks with other youth and form intergenerational ties with adult allies and policy makers can strengthen solidarity in collective action and lead to community change (Stoneman, 2002; Kirshner & Ginwright, 2012; Schwartz & Suyemoto, 2013). Community change initiatives can foster this sense of connection and community by sponsoring opportunities for youth and adults to interact and get to know each other. Ideally, these opportunities would span a variety of contexts and provide circumstances where both the youth and adults can learn and grow (e.g., creative opportunities like video making (Ennis, 2014), intergenerational volunteering at the community garden, youth leadership on the neighborhood council, adult guest speakers in youth training classes).


In many communities, there is often limited interaction between those focused on youth development and those focused on neighborhood revitalization or development. The principles outlined in this article can be used to bring their work closer together. The principles can inspire community change leaders to more deeply invest in youth empowerment and youth involvement in critical neighborhood efforts. The principles can also be used by youth development programs to help youth see how they can use their gifts and talents for the good of their neighborhoods. Community Science is currently supporting an evaluation for a program that is doing just this. Groundwork USA’s Green Team model prioritizes youth empowerment in the context of the communities where the Green Team members live. See the article, Groundwork USA’s Green Teams, later in this newsletter to learn more about the Green Team program and our evaluation of their work.

1For discussion of evidence highlighting the role of youth as change agents, see Percy-Smith & Burns (2013).

2There is a rich literature that explores how youth empowerment might most effectively be fostered and the role it can play within communities (Cargo et al., 2003; Chinman & Linney, 1998; Freire, 1970; Kim, 1998; Jennings et al., 2006). The principles in this article are drawn from this collective work as well as the work of Community Science researchers.

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