Mockingbird Youth Summit
August 30, 2019
Authentic Youth Engagement Is Both Critical and Achievable
By Paula Carvalho
Program Officer, Youth Homelessness

One of the most important aspects of creating transformative change is making sure that those most impacted by problems are meaningfully involved in the development and implementation of solutions. 

And while centering those most impacted by a problem might seem like common sense, impacted-communities and people are often the last folks to be consulted by would-be problem solvers. Fortunately, that’s starting to change, but as more and more philanthropists and nonprofit leaders wake up to the need for authentic engagement with impacted-communities, they’re running into a new problem.

How?

How do you engage people with lived-experience in change? How do traditional decision makers meaningfully share power?

I feel very fortunate to have been a part of an organization that’s been focused on answering that question for more than a decade. As the former Director of Youth Programs at The Mockingbird Society, I saw firsthand the incredible change that can happen when young people from across Washington state have the opportunity to meaningfully shape the foster care and homelessness systems for themselves and for those who will come after them.

One example of this work in action took place this month at the Mockingbird Society’s 14th annual Youth & Alumni Leadership Summit. At the Summit, Mockingbird youth from across the state, all of whom have lived experience with homelessness and/or foster care spoke truth to power. Mockingbird youth presented powerful proposals ranging from the ability to edit their foster care files to master leasing to lessen housing barriers. They told powerful firsthand stories of how these approaches would have changed their lives, backed up by solid research. They spoke with deep conviction, some praising a system that helped them and others asking for reform. Their voices filled the room with both hope and a sense of urgency to transform these overlapping systems. In the audience were members of the Washington State Commission on Children in Foster Care, the Office of Homeless Youth Advisory Committee, hundreds of community partners, state legislators, state department heads and funders.

The Summit is a powerful celebration of young people’s ideas, agency and tenacity, but building a platform where youth can authentically engage in the policymaking process takes a ton of work. I know because I helped plan the event, and I can tell you that authentic engagement doesn’t happen overnight.

Mockingbird youth advocates identify a problem, hypothesize and research a solution, and get constant feedback from other experts in the community. The young people research the relevant law, previous bills, studies, and information about the fiscal impact of their ideas. After several months of hard work, young people then present their proposals and begin the process of advocating for change – another eight to nine months of intense work.

Mockingbird’s model is just one way to go about community engagement, but it holds important lessons for philanthropists, nonprofits, and government leaders on how to engage impacted-peoples and communities. Ensuring that advocates, in this case youth, have both the skills and the information they need to engage meaningfully is crucial—otherwise asking for community feedback is just an exercise in checking a box. It’s also crucial for ensuring that communities are not tokenized and that their feedback and engagement is given the weight it is due.

Mockingbird’s work shows how authentic engagement with those most-impacted is not only achievable, but crucial for achieving transformative change.

I’m honored to have been a part of that work with Mockingbird for the last five years, and even more excited to bring those lessons with me to the Raikes Foundation and the philanthropy-sector.