Centering Youth Voice + Experience

The strategies discussed in this chapter are based on the power and responsibility of narrative story sharing by youth with lived experiences.  

Every young person is different. Their skills are different; their passions are different; and their experiences are different. Youth-led programs draw a host of young leaders with different skill sets at varying developmental stages. Some youth might show natural leadership, while others may find it harder to communicate their ideas in large groups, especially when talking about their own experiences. When establishing a youth-led program, staff must be equipped with the skills to provide young people with the support and resources to process these traumas and help them begin to advocate for their own needs and support. When youth are looking to utilize aspects of their story and their lived experience to advance advocacy efforts, it is important to receive training and support to understand the pros and cons of sharing their stories. There should always be a willingness and a true purpose for individuals to share personal stories. 

Youth should receive support and training on how to share their experiences in a way that informs stakeholders while protecting themselves from unnecessary harm and trauma.


An emphasis on the empowerment of each youth advocate is foundational to an authentic youth-led advocacy program. 

Youth involvement in system change and policy campaigns is based on the notion that those closest to the problem have the clearest solution.

Someone who is living through the problem has a better sense of the unique difficulties one faces when trying to find a solution. Sometimes, those closest to the problem in advocacy groups are still experiencing the challenges and barriers associated with that problem. In this case, young people are being asked to advocate for long-term systemic change while still working to hurdle barriers caused by these systems.



Some young people may be working for change while knowing that they will never see the positive impact of their work in their own lives. For these reasons, personal advocacy, skill development, and individual support for every young person in the program is essential so they have the capacity to do systemic advocacy. Young people are able to engage more fully, when they are supported to access sufficient support.

Engage in Systemic AND Personal Advocacy Efforts

Meet Youth Where They Are

Guiding Principles Continued

One of the most delicate-to-navigate components of creating a youth-led program is utilizing the members' experiences without exploiting the individual. Teens and emerging adults do not always understand the impact of sharing such personal experiences (which are sometimes traumatic) with the public or systems professionals they are still involved with or receiving services from. 

Program management must train and prepare young people for the potential consequences of sharing personal experiences by helping them identify the components of their stories they want to share, and the impact of identifying other people or certain elements of their stories.  

One way to do this is to identify boundaries EVERY time a young person shares their story. Program staff should work with the young person to identify  what is “off limits” about their personal experiences. When programs  set standards for sharing this also sets an example to external partners on the most authentic and ethical ways to engage young speakers.


Prepare Youth Every Time to Tell Their Story

Help Youth Establish Autonomy Over Their Own Story

Remind Youth to Share Personal Experiences for Change, NOT Trauma

A person in a lavender dress reads from a paper in front of a microphone

Guiding Principles Continued

Professionals who manage or facilitate youth-led programs need to diligently assess the individual needs of each member of the program and work with the young person to jointly identify which skills they want to further develop.

Professionals must be intentional, and thoughtful, to avoid instinctually trying to make an assessment or judgment about what group members need. Often this assessment can be riddled with stereotypes and white, patriarchal views of professionalism and success in the workplace.

When people think about skill development, they may think of learning to write more clearly, speak more engagingly, facilitate a large group, develop better time management, or even learn to draft a professional email. In reality, a skill can be anything someone uses to better accomplish a goal. One of the first steps in helping a young person better identify what skills they need to grow is to point out skills where they already excel and meeting the young leaders where they are.


Create Individualized Skill-Building Plans

Identify Implicit Bias When You Assess Youths’ Skills and Development

Remember that Skills Look Different to Everyone


In this section, we will discuss creating a space for youth to share (or not share), supporting individualized advocacy, and how youth advocates and author their own story. 

Creating a Space to Share or Not Share

Too often, youth are tasked with managing very adult responsibilities in their lives: schooling, court schedules, food shopping, bills, health care, and mental well-being (sometimes all while raising children or caring for siblings). When youth advocates feel comfortable sharing what they are trying to manage in their personal lives with program staff, they can work together to plan  and try to prevent emergencies from arising. This type of pre-planning skill can be tactful.  Done well, youth can build and learn from this process and use it to advocate for themselves in the future.

Sometimes youth advocates do not feel comfortable sharing what is going on in their lives until there is an emergency.

When youth advocates bring these issues to program staff, they are still using vital advocacy skills by knowing where to turn in a time of crisis. All of this is possible because of the relationships and trust the members of the program develop with program staff.


A person with long hair smiling and holding a paitning of an upheld clenched fist.

Supporting Individualized Advocacy 

In youth-led advocacy groups, feelings of self-efficacy increase the longer they are involved. Youth’s confidence in their skills grows and they learn to build trust within the program knowing they will receive support in their own self advocacy.  When youth identify a need or concern it is either addressed directly during the workshop or staff may ask the youth if they are willing to set up a time to meet to work through the issue. This can involve providing advice, connecting to resources, or identifying contact information for other advocates on the youth’s team. Program staff may assess that a youth needs more specialized advocacy, like contacting a young person’s advocacy team, recommending referrals for services,, writing letters of support, going to court to support the young person, or simply giving them time to process a difficult or traumatic event. This support gives the members the tools to advocate for themselves in the future.

Authoring your Own Story 

Juvenile Law Center's Youth Advocacy Program staff take seriously the responsibility of teaching youth advocates about safe, strategic story sharing and narrative shaping.

From the moment that youth are interviewed for the position, they are directed to only share what they are comfortable sharing and are constantly reminded that they do not need to go into detail about their experiences in the justice and child welfare system during their interview to join the program.

Some youth advocates never share details about how or why they entered the juvenile justice system or foster care system. Staff are also aware that this practice of voluntarily sharing information is new to many youth advocates. Youth advocates have autonomy over their story and how and what they want to share. If and when a youth decides to share elements of their story for their advocacy reform efforts they are supported by staff, in their writing or interview process by helping them process, prepare and finalize their content. For example, youth may be supported in their process to create content for blogs, panels, a television interview or presentation. Youth advocates can always decide not to share, and change their mind as many times as they want to about what they are willing to share.

A person wearing a headband and a jean jacket.


If you want to learn specific tested tips about story sharing, please review this guide! 


Building Group Support 

The yearly Youth Advocacy Program curriculum begins with team building and training in strategic story sharing. This training is rooted in the same ideologies that the Casey Family Programs outlines and helps youth advocates develop tools they can use when they feel like they might be losing control over their own story. The Youth Advocacy Program curriculum is structured in this way to respect the comfort level of program participants. We understand many youth advocates have not openly shared their experiences with such a large group before. Therefore, our first goal is to build a community of trust and acceptance where members feel comfortable talking about their lived experiences. 

This level of trust is built through:

  • Community agreements
  • Ice breakers
  • Vision boards
  • Opportunities for people to share when they want to share
  • Opportunities for youth advocates to work in small groups and pairs
  • Whole group check-ins to gauge everyone’s current mood and state of mind
  • Open communication about what works and does not work during weekly workshops

Youth advocates often share that their group becomes a form of friendship and family where they can relate to others in ways they have never been able to before.

Implications for Group Development 

Program staff are trained to support each youth advocates’ individual development, but they are also trained to respond to challenging dynamics, or unexpected issues and situations that arise during workshops. Through a series of ice breakers, team building exercises, guest speakers, and training, staff can see where a youth advocate might flourish and where they might need more support. Over the course of their three years with the program, staff can see the difference in the young person’s development. Tasks that may have taken them a few weeks can later be accomplished in one week. Someone who may have been shy to participate in an ice breaker is now speaking in front of an audience of 50 people. Youth may also learn conflict resolution skills, and learn overtime to openly discuss and seek support from staff to resolve group challenges. These developments can occur when staff provide individualized support, when youth feel a sense of community from the group, and see their own personal growth.

Conducting Skills Workshops

Over the past few years, youth advocates identified the need for general skill-based workshops. Two of the most requested workshops were budgeting and resume building. These workshops were then developed by program staff. The resume building workshop encouraged ongoing support of youth advocates by staff outside of the program as many youth advocates wanted to keep working with the staff members who supported the development of their resumes beyond the workshop. Workshops can vary based on the needs of the young people each year. Many youth advocates have expressed a desire to have workshops on mindfulness, exercise, educational planning (especially when you have bills to pay and family to care for), applying for health care, preparing for court, and advocating for yourself in court. Many of the topic areas program staff have implemented and brought in community partners to provide skills building training based on youth identified interests and needs.  

It is likely that if one young person needs help with something, many more need similar support. 


When asked about program support for the youth advocates in their own cases, the group talked about the different moments in which staff helped them with various issues in their personal lives.

One young person talked about how we were able to guide and assist him in a case involving his siblings.

We gave him an idea for next steps in the case, and he was able to work through it during two check-in meetings. The young person was able to move forward with helping his siblings with the additional information we provided.

When asked about the strategic sharing approach the program managers take with the youth advocates, the members in both groups spoke directly about their experiences advocating in Harrisburg, PA. The youth advocates went to the state capital to advocate for a bill supporting educational transitions for youth with experience in the juvenile justice and foster care systems and had planned to share their experiences during this advocacy. The youth advocates had to write their experiences down. Their writing was  then reviewed to make sure that they were comfortable with the information that was being shared. The young people shared that it was very helpful to have this information written down because it helped calm their nerves. They shared that they all  felt good about presenting. The young people also reported that they feel supported in sharing their experiences when they were provided the questions they will be asked ahead of time. The young people referenced that even when speaking engagements could not provide questions in advance, the program managers were able to provide them with potential questions they might be asked so they can feel as prepared as possible. The youth advocates recommend providing these supports to all young people talking about their stories so that they are aware of what will be asked of them during speaking engagements.
Youth advocates identified how skill-building during workshops has supported both their professional and personal development. Youth expressed that workshops have enabled them to create and deliver elevator pitches about policy topics and issues. They are better able to present clear and concise information with confidence because they feel prepared to do so. One youth advocate referenced an instance in which she was speaking live in front of rolling cameras and was able to persevere through her immense nervousness because the program gave her the skills to do so. Youth advocates also feel that the skills they develop through workshops provide professional support through expanding their experience on their resume. Youth noted that the program has given them the opportunity to facilitate workshops themselves, publish articles and blog posts and travel outside of Philadelphia to discuss social justice issues. On a personal level, they feel that their participation in the program has developed their social/emotional skills. Youth advocates explained that participation in the program has taught them to collect their thoughts before they share out loud, to avoid conflict and not to act too impulsively.