Youth Governance Tip Sheet

Prioritising young people in programs, governance and decision-making.

Restless Development US has been busy this year with their pilot program the Meaningful Youth Engagement (MYE) Lab funded by Citi Foundation. We gathered a cohort of youth-employment focussed organisations to begin discussions and imagine solutions to prioritise young people in programs, governance and decision-making.

This can be an incredibly challenging journey that requires a lot of transformation, creativity and buy-in across teams. We also know that MYE looks different for every context. Though best practices exist, it’s a consistent commitment to listening and valuing young people’s voices that help change the particular cultures of organisations. 

One major area of learning in the MYE journey is youth governance. Not all organisations can jump into creating advisory boards or having youth board members. A lot of research, reflection on power, and agreements are required to answer the why, who, and how to build youth governance in an organisation.

Mentor National, one of the cohort members of the MYE Lab, was interested in learning about how youth governance could look in their reality. In 2022 we invited Mentor to speak with Nikita Khanna, a Restless Development youth advisor who sits at the highest decision-making body at Restless Development.

The process of meaningfully engaging young people is a protracted one. It warrants patience and diverse perspectives. It requires placing trust in young people and listening to them on how to steer the organisation to think and act.

Nikita Khanna

Nikita and the Mentor team explored questions, challenges and interesting solutions to youth governance models. Below is a list of key points that Nikita and the US team put together based on these conversations:

Graphic by: Davina Thompson

1. Ask and answer the big questions.

Before getting young people on a board, make sure you have reflected on the big questions. “Why are we seeking young people on our board? What specific insight and influence are they bringing that we can’t get otherwise? Are we ready to share decision-making power?” These “why” questions can help avoid youth as “decorations” and build meaningful partnerships. 

2. More than one!

Consider inviting more than one young person to the board. This helps avoid tokenism, enables youth board members to lean on each other, and creates a more manageable experience by having allies of their own age.

3. Support from the start.

Youth board members probably need time and support in becoming familiar with what a board is and does before they can fully engage and contribute. Creating structured, open, and intentional conversations with youth board members before they begin their role can set them up for success.

4. Transformative, not additive.

Adding young people to a board will fundamentally change that board. Young people at the table will have to adapt, but so will all the adults. This is a commitment to inclusion that requires a fundamental shift instead of expecting young people to “assimilate” to what already exists.

5. Define roles.

Clearly define the role a young person is expected to serve. What work will they be accountable for? What work can they own and bring to the board?

6. Two-way Mentorship.

Consider pairing young people and more senior members based on their area of expertise or interests. Consistent check-ins and two-way mentorship can build strong intergenerational relationships. 

7. Structured Capacity & Leadership Development.

Even after orientation, having a dedicated capacity development plan that youth can participate in throughout their term on the board can really support their leadership and voice.

8. Don’t forget safe space.

Don’t skip safe-space conversations! “Safe space” is also very subjective and might be the most relevant when co-defined by the board.