Informed Work and Collaboration With Youth
The strategies discussed in this chapter are based on adolescent development, trauma informed practice, and equitable program management.
When establishing a youth-led advocacy program, the learned and lived experiences of its young members need to be integrated into the development of the program. In the Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy Program, members have been or are currently involved in the foster care and/or juvenile justice systems.The members of this program are in the prime of their adolescent development. The behavior they often exhibit, which can involve risk-taking or defiance, is reflective of the stage of their brain development. Knowing this, curriculum building must include how to equitably work with the members and use a trauma-informed approach.These members are expected to address barriers and traumas that they have and continue to experience including abuse, instability, abandonment and neglect, and lack of supportive adults in their lives.
Working with “youth” or “adolescents” requires a plan for individualized support that is informed by the unique experiences that each young person brings to the group.
When developing a youth-led program based on the experiences of the members, having a keen understanding of child-serving systems, adolescent development, trauma-informed approaches, and race, equity and inclusion will determine the success of the program, the emotional impact on the program members, and the number of members retained in the program over time.
Seek to Learn about Adolescent Development
Prioritize Understanding Trauma
Center Race Equity and Inclusion
In this section, we will discuss building a curriculum for a youth advocacy program, providing robust and consistent support, and a support system that’s stable.
Building a Curriculum
The youth advocates' experiences and perspectives are at the center of developing the curriculum each year for the Youth Advocacy Program.
Their expertise, not their personal traumas, drive the curriculum and their advocacy. Their personal experiences are but one component of their expertise and offer us facts and understanding of the impact of systems on youth and young adults.
The facilitation techniques are developed to meet the individual learning styles of each youth advocate. Staff always ask youth advocates if they are visual or auditory learners, if they like to work in groups or by themselves, and if they like to draw instead of write. Staff then adjust learning activities to meet the needs of the group. With the feedback and guidance provided by the youth advocates, Youth Advocacy Program staff have incorporated explicit discussions of race and bias into the curriculum. Doing this process creates an atmosphere of understanding that trauma is complex and intersects with other external social factors and identities.
Providing Robust and Consistent Support
It is imperative that programs consider the challenges for young people to offer their expertise and be present in the workshops while they are in crisis outside of the workshops. To help provide as much support as possible to the youth advocates, Youth Advocacy Program staff conduct initial check-ins or interviews when new youth advocates start the program to learn about their:
- Personal lives
- Immediate needs
- Learning style
- Possible emotional and psychological triggers.
Throughout the year, regular check-ins are continuously conducted to address youths’ ongoing needs, crises, planning in their dependency or delinquency cases, education planning, and court advocacy.
Creating a Stable Support System
For many young people who lack significant social and family support, the program becomes a vital support system. Youth advocates are given the opportunity to stay in the program for three years and are encouraged to stay involved in the program as alumni, often formally through the Youth Speakers’ Bureau, when they complete three years in the program.
Youth advocates who are able to stay in the program for all three years often display significant growth. The Youth Advocates continue to develop their comprehensive understanding of legal systems; and can confidently speak about their experiences and present recommendations for change.
It is evident the benefit for the field, staff, and current youth advocates when alumni can remain actively engaged with the program and remain a part of the policy reforms. Alumni have the skills, after completing the three years in the program, to work alongside Juvenile Law Center staff to ensure lived experience and recommendations are thoroughly incorporated into policy reform.
YOUTH ADVOCATE REFLECTIONS
Youth advocates cited the development of the Youth Emergency Fund as a program element that supported retention.
In 2018, Juvenile Law Center directed new funds to the Youth Advocacy Program to support immediate or emergency needs of the youth advocates.
The fund supports a variety of specific needs for youth advocates, ranging from purchasing vital documents (i.e. birth certificates, social security cards and state identification cards), work uniforms so a young person can start a new job, or emergency housing assistance. One youth advocate was able to use the funding to help them establish stable housing. The youth advocate described that he felt comfortable coming to us to share his housing crisis and needs and was relieved to access assistance quickly and without barriers, or, in his words “begging.” He said that we handled the situation and went above and beyond. He felt listened to and validated.