I’m just going to say it- youth engagement is easy. I know this might run counter to the usual rhetoric, and possibly even your own experiences, but engaging with young people really isn’t all that difficult. Now, sustaining that engagement- that’s the difficult part.
Youth engagement, and the reason why it’s easy, comes down to two main things: passion and conversation. Personally, I’m a big advocate for the importance of passion in engagement and education. If you look back through your life, and pick out the people that had a significant positive impact on your life, I can almost guarantee you that passion played a huge role in them becoming a role model. In University it’s what separated a good professor from a bad professor, in highschool it’s what made you actually listen to that one teacher- the one you can still remember the name of. On a more generalized level, it’s why Bill Nye the Science Guy inspired so many people to get into the sciences, or why Neil deGrasse Tyson can release a book on astrophysics, and have it become a New York Times best seller. Regardless of age, passion is infectious, and if you’re able to convey your passion to anyone- in this case to young people- you will have them hook, line, and sinker.
Conversation, in the truest meaning of the word, is also important. Conversation isn’t talking at someone or down to someone, but with someone. A conversation entails not only talking, but listening to someone, and building off of each other’s answers, thoughts, and opinions. When it comes to youth engagement, this is equally important. The quickest way to lose someone is to not listen to them, or to only listen to them at face value, and dismiss their words without a second thought. No one wants to feel disenfranchised, or like their views and opinions aren’t being heard- especially youth. When it comes to youth engagement it’s important to not forget to listen. If you know how your audience thinks and feels, then you can make sure that they’re invested in what you’re doing.
It’s in these ways that Emerging Leaders for Biodiversity, the organization I chair, has had such success. Sure, we’re an organization for youth, by youth, but that’s just another way of saying we’re ready to talk and listen. We’re a network that provides a platform for discussion to occur, and then inform our decisions based on that discussion. We’re also all passionate about the environment, and are ready to share that passion with anyone and everyone. We grow as an organization not because of ads or booths at events, but by word of mouth. We meet people, talk with them, swap passions, and grow. Then those people bring that passion to their friends and social circles. Like I said above, passion is infectious.
This all brings us now to sustaining that engagement, and like most things it’s probably related to money. No matter how passionate you are about something, you still have to find a way to pay off your student debt, pay your bills, and possibly return to school to make yourself more desirable over all the other people who graduated with the same degree as you. All of this gets in the way of sustained engagement. Every year, thousands of students graduate with degrees in environmental studies, biology, zoology, etc. who would immediately jump into a paying conservation related position. Unfortunately, that volume of paying work just doesn’t exist, and unpaid internships are only an actual possibility for those without crushing student debt.
The solution to this, when it comes to sustaining engagement, isn’t necessarily money, however. It just means adapting your engagement strategy. How much is being asked, what’s the time commitment, how much notice is being given, how flexible are you willing to be? If it’s something that a young person is passionate about, there’s no question that they would love to be as involved as possible, for as long as possible. The roadblocks come up when the job they took to pay off University, or College, or their electricity bill, gets in the way. So you adapt, you make their involvement possible via email, you give them ample time to schedule time off work for big events, maybe you drop in-person meetings down to once a month- in any case the most success you’re going to have is if you work with the individual, or individuals, in question to determine the best strategy. Ultimately, this is the difficult part, and no one solution or answer will magically make everything work.
Chair, Emerging Leaders for Biodiversity