Youth Engagement and Empowerment through Creativity

Utilizing creativity and the arts are great ways to empower and engage youth. “Empowering Youth” means to encourage youth voice and decision making with the goal of improving access to resources and representation. One in every three people in Indian cities are youth and by the year 2020, the age will be 29 years old, making it the youngest country in the world according to The Hindu. India is such prime place to begin engaging youth in key decision-making and as I participated in strategic planning with both Video Volunteers and Chindu, I realized that there is a need for appropriate planning and programming that will be beneficial to this growing demographic.

According to the United Nations, “youth” is defined as individuals between the ages of 15 – 24. A white paper by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative emphasizes the importance of youth engagement and brain development and states that it is no longer just good practice for organizations to think about how to engage youth but it is actually a neurological necessity. There are many ways to empower youth and the one that I utilize is creative youth engagement.

For several years, I served a fellow for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative (The Initiative) as a youth foster care advocate. This has helped to shape my personal philosophy about utilizing creativity to engage youth. The Initiative published multiple issue briefs about engaging youth in foster care–many of which, I was personally involved with. Because of my personal interest in the arts, I found many parallels and was to merge my experiences working with youth in a creative environment with my youth engagement principals.

When working with Chindu, I had the task of helping to shape their programming for youth. This is a population that they have worked with but they were interested in creating specific programming that impacted Dalit youth, girls, urban and rural youth. Chindu wanted to think about what programming for youth should look like. In having this conversation with Chindu, I thought about my personal philosophy about youth engagement and creativity. My philosophy is that every person has a gift. It is important to help youth cultivate their gifts early. Although all gifts aren’t necessarily creative gifts, I believe that creativity is a way to unlock every type of gift a person may have. It encourages critical thinking and going-with-the-flow. Creativity, in turn, makes it easier to step outside the box and truly impact people with your gift. When working with young people, it is important to acknowledge their ability to make decisions and provide opportunities for decision making. I’d like to share some key lessons I have learned and applied:

Focus on Youth Leadership in Every Aspect of the Creative Process
  1. Empowering youth voice by encouraging creativity (believing in the validity and the necessity of youth contribution) and adults creatively making it happen on the back end.
    Youth Engagement is not about letting youth do things on their own as much as it is about youth-Adult partnerships.
  2. The process is just as important (if not MORE important) as the finished product.
    When engaging youth in accomplishing a goal, whether that goal is creating an artistic production or helping to get a major policy passes, it is important to engage youth in every part of the process. Allow space for mistakes and learning. Build in time for instruction and questions. Ensure that you are not only at the table but actively informed and involved throughout the process.
  3. Raise the bar and a young person will reach it every time!
    It does not serve youth to be treated like babies. It is necessary for positive brain development that youth are provided with healthy risk taking opportunities so that their brains can be rewired for healthy decision making. High expectations for every youth regardless of ability. Excellence is the goal and when a young person reach appropriately set goals, they can feel proud of their accomplishments.
  4. Celebrate and acknowledge small and large accomplishments.
    Sometimes it can be so easy to notice when things are done wrong. It is important for youth engagement that just as much effort is put into acknowledging and rewarding even the small accomplishment.
  5. Don’t be afraid to admit you are wrong or that you don’t know something well.
    Sometimes the burden of knowing everything is placed on the adult leaders. A great deal of respect can be gained when you are willing to acknowledge your own flaws and actively work toward perfecting these flaws.
  6. Demonstrate excellence.
    When adult leaders demonstrate a desire for excellence, this behavior will be demonstrated and mimicked by the youth partners.
  7. Commit to the creator (the young person) and not the creation (the final product). Find ways to reinforce this commitment.
    Even with maximum effort, there will always be times when the finished product does not come out as planned. This is when the adult supporter demonstrate appreciation and effort put forth by youth involved. It is OK to share with youth areas of improvement as well but this type of feedback is best received when a layer of trust has already been established.
  8. Set the atmosphere for the creative process, be extra, be over the top!
    A part of demonstrating excellence is putting though into how you invite youth into a new space to participate in programming. Think about the youth that you intend to serve. what do they like, what do they spend time doing, what are their main interest? Reflect these things in the atmosphere that you create. When you are engaged in this way, they are more likely to encourage their friends to come along and you have thus created something you can take ownership of and feel proud about.

When helping Chindu to share their youth engagement programming for a special project this summer, I infused some of my personal philosophy with key goals that the organization intends to meet. I believe that as India’s youth population begins to grow and and become more influential, there will be a need to invest in youth engagement strategies that work and benefit this very vital and growing demographic.

Crystal is a national speaker, author and foster care advocate. She uses the arts to promote individual and community change. Crystal graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in English, Creative Writing and Theater Studies and received her MBA from Georgia State University with a focus in organizational management. Crystal has also worked with child welfare organizations in Georgia in the areas of marketing and communications, strategy and implementation, fundraising and community mobilization, and training and curriculum development. She has also volunteered as the theater director for the teen ministry of an international ministry. Crystal has served as a member of Georgia Governor’s Council for child welfare reform, she is certified in Life Stories® Theater curriculum, and she is a founding member of an advocacy group for foster youth in Georgia called Georgia Empowerment. Crystal is also a young fellow for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative through the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Crystal has traveled the nation as an advocate for foster children and uses her gift of spoken word poetry to challenge and motivate audiences. Crystal’s mission is to inspire people to use their gifts for good to leave their mark on this world in permanent ink.

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