Sustaining A Youth-Led Program

The strategies discussed in this chapter focus on essential support and investment from the organization for the program to thrive along with evaluative measures needed to sustain a program.

To develop an authentic and ethical youth-led program, the entire organization must be dedicated to developing sufficient capacity to run the program. The organization supporting the program must be aware of the everyday demands of running a youth-led program and be willing to provide necessary supervisory and financial support.

Sufficient staffing by human service professionals with adequate and relevant training is needed to run a supportive youth-led advocacy program.

Having sufficient staffing is vital to building a strong program that can support young people and do effective advocacy work. Staff must also have relevant training to do their jobs effectively. Finally, one of the most essential practices to sustaining successful programming is the feedback from the program members and the audiences served by the youth advocates. This feedback should be collected and then implemented in the development of the program.

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Youth-led programming should have designated staff to support the on-going development of the programs and the needs of the members.

The staff’s’ primary focus should be running and growing the programs in a manner that supports youth.

Staff should have a background in youth development, trauma-informed practice, a strong understanding of social service systems, and guiding ethical principles.

The ideal staff are professionals with degrees and expertise in the field of human services, child and family studies, and more specifically, social work. Human service professionals, especially social workers, are equipped with the skills to work with young people who need additional support and resources in times of crisis.


Adapt Evidenced-based Ethical Codes

Use a Wholistic Approach to Solutions

Recognize Personal Biases

Guiding Principles Continued

Commitment to youth-led programming begins with the mission and vision of an organization. Leadership and other organizational staff must value and be dedicated to incorporating youth voice and expertise. One of the most important commitments that agencies can make to a youth-led program is to ensure that the program is appropriately staffed.  

Youth-led programs cannot be a side project for a few staff at the organization. An agency must have organizational buy-in from all departments including administration and management.  

Organization staff must be invested in the youth-led program to provide adequate funding for programmatic and payroll needs, but also to collaborate with young leaders and appropriately, authentically, and ethically use youth voice to influence organizational efforts. Organization staff must fully acknowledge young people who are members of the program as integral office staff.


Begin with the Mission and Vision of the Organization

Provide Sufficient and Appropriate Staffing to Youth Programming

Be Intentional to Fully Integrate your Program into the Organization

Guiding Principles Continued

A program runs smoothly when the members of the program have an investment in the work. But to be invested in the work, youth program members need an opportunity to direct the curriculum and build the infrastructure of the program. They build the practices that work best for them.

Rarely are youth given the opportunity to speak about their own lived expertise and how that can impact and improve these systems.

Additionally, Black, Latinx/Latine, Indigenous, and other persons of color are historically further excluded from the opportunity to provide feedback about their own systems experience. Both young people and the programs themselves benefit from youth participatory evaluation.


Include Evaluative Feedback from Youth about the Program into the Program Development

Include Partner Feedback about the Program into the Program Development


In this section, we’ll discuss building a campaign, providing individualized support, growing your youth advocacy program, investing in lived experience, and conducting yearly debriefs. 

Building a Campaign

Staff capacity and training is critical for the success of the annual reform campaigns.

Through the development of the campaigns and projects, the program staff use their background in policy reform to address the societal, historical, and institutional root causes of the issues the youth advocates identify and encourage discussions of race, equity, and inclusion, and how biases have an impact on the solutions to the issues.

Much of the ongoing work of the program staff consists of reaching out to the appropriate partners, engaging with their work, and collaborating on joint projects to advance the policy work of the youth advocates. Additionally, to design the policy campaigns, program staff meet with Juvenile Law Center’s legal staff regularly to stay current on new legislation, policies, resources, and partnerships, and to meet with key stakeholders to collaborate on projects, gain support, and disseminate information.


Providing Individualized Support

Staff’s social work and human service backgrounds equip them to provide youth with an array of support. Supports include: resource referral, case planning, de-escalation, and court advocacy. The team has the background and skill set to ask youth advocates the right questions (questions that are not triggering or invasive) to identify what supports they might need and connect and refer them to the appropriate resources. These resources are identified through regular check-ins with all youth advocates.

Growing with Growth

When Juvenile Law Center first developed the Youth Advocacy Program (initially referred to as Youth Engagement Program), it was staffed by interns and attorneys as a supplemental project to their legal work. The groups were small, capping at roughly six people in each group, the alumni network was also quite small with less than 20 members. As the interest in the program grew, the members grew, and the need for more permanent staffing became evident. Predictably, as the program grew in staff, the work continued to expand once again. Today, the numbers are capped at fifteen members for each group and the alumni network has roughly 100 members. The Youth Speakers Bureau includes roughly twenty active alumni in addition to the youth participants currently in the program. These youth have reached audiences across the country. The size of the audiences grows each year which means the messages, stories, and recommendations of the youth advocates are reaching more people.

Making an Investment in Lived Experience

The organizational support, program management advocacy, and board support has allowed Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy Program to grow into a respected national model that truly values the expertise of its youth advocates. One core way Juvenile Law Center values the work of youth advocates is through appropriate compensation for any work by the youth advocates. This philosophy reflects the respect that the organization has for the youth advocates’ time, lived experience, and expertise. Youth should always be paid for their time. It is  about recognizing the value of a young person’s time and being intentional and committed to ensuring youth voice is at the center of advocacy work.


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Conducting Yearly Debriefs

The Youth Advocacy team at Juvenile Law Center has developed several modes of evaluations since the program developed in 2008 ranging from paper surveys to program participant interviews, to regular engagement of youth advocates in the development of curriculum and program structure. All these forms of evaluation are necessary to measure success.

 Juvenile Law Center defines success through:

  • The number of youth members in our programs; 
  • Program retention; 
  • The knowledge, skills, and interest our youth advocates develop through their active participation in our programs; and
  • The lasting impact the Youth Advocacy campaigns have on the foster care and juvenile justice systems. 

Program staff adjust the program structure and curriculum through surveys, staff observations, and debriefings. Every summer, after the program year concludes, all youth advocates are interviewed about their experience in the program by a Juvenile Law Center representative that is unaffiliated with the program. The “check-out” interview is elemental in our evaluation process because it gathers the feedback necessary to make changes program members hope to see for the following program year. 


When asked about having highly trained social workers as program managers, youth advocates talked about the staff being knowledgeable on how the juvenile justice and foster care systems work, and about other systems in Philadelphia.

Youth shared that staff are knowledgeable about and can help with accessing necessary vital documents and records that the youth advocates need.

One young person specifically related that the county’s foster care organization was supposed to help them obtain their vital documents, but instead gave them the “runaround.” They shared that the Youth Advocacy Program staff helped point the young person in the right direction and was able to help them get their records. Overall, youth advocates stated that we make them feel comfortable in sharing their experiences and asking for help.

When youth advocates were asked about how the program was staffed, the group discussed staff expertise and being empowered to share different points of view on how to tackle a problem. They also discussed the importance of having multiple staff present during sessions to help support both the group and the individual. Youth advocates talked about a specific session that was held when there was a large disruption during the workshop. Having multiple staff allowed the session to continue for the rest of the group while one of us was able to take the young person involved in the disruption to the side to discuss what was going on and how to help. Youth advocates also discussed the importance of having more than one staff person available for check-ins and meetings with them when they need additional support. They shared that they never have to wait for staff to be available if there is a problem.

When the youth advocates were asked about the evaluation of the program and their input, they expressed that they felt the program managers valued their feedback and took their suggestions and requests seriously. responded to their needs through assessment and valuing their feedback. The youth advocates referenced the formal and informal evaluations (surveys and observations) that the staff conducted and acknowledged that staff applied these assessments and responded to their needs. Youth advocates referred back to the emergency fund, when program managers recognized a real necessity to support youth in situations of immediate need.A combination of formal and informal assessments also revealed a need for extra check-ins regarding mental health and additional resources. Program Managers incorporated systematized, regular check-ins with youth because of youth responses to evaluations.