Engaging Youth To Advance Community Health, Equity, And Safety

By Marian Mulkey, Health Affairs

Striking differences by race and ethnicity in community health and public safety outcomes, with worrying implications for America’s youth, have been documented at the county and zip code levels. To address poor outcomes and disparities, philanthropic and public-sector attention has been increasingly directed toward building and sustaining healthy, safe, and equitable communities.

Funders seeking to improve community rather than individual outcomes are looking upstream to address social determinants of health and are focusing on the systems and structures that yield persistent inequities in health outcomes. Growing numbers of funders have adopted health equity as an explicit goal. Funders are also investing in gun violence prevention and in interventions that support community safety.

An inclusive conception of the health and safety outcomes that matter—for communities as well as individuals—calls for fresh thinking about the partners and tactics that can bring positive change.

Engaging and supporting youth as allies to advance community health, equity, and safety is one approach that funders and practitioners often overlook. They may discount the value of youth as full community members, doubt their readiness to contribute to productive discourse and decision making, or find it simpler to fall back on established power dynamics rather than invest in the cultivation and meaningful involvement of young people.

Yet, youth are often at the front lines in their experience of inequitable, unsafe, and unhealthy conditions, and as a generation, these young people have a long-term stake in community well-being. Youth engagement offers benefits for the young people involved. Available evidence also suggests that involving young people in health and safety efforts can improve community outcomes.

Insights on the untapped potential for youth engagement to improve community health and safety outcomes emerged from an 18-month working group of diverse nonprofits and funders convened by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the Rita Allen Foundation. Our working group explored strategies and practices for engaging youth to improve health equity, community health outcomes, and public safety. We found many compelling examples in which effective youth engagement improved health and safety not just for the young people involved, but for their communities as a whole.

Youth Engagement: Many Forms, Varied Benefits

In East Los Angeles, youth who were engaged in local advocacy with a neighborhood organization, InnerCity Struggle, helped identify the need for and benefits of trauma-informed mental health services. Their involvement ultimately resulted in adoption of a trauma-informed approach by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In Cicero, Illinois (an RWJF 2018 Culture of Health Prize Winner), a nonprofit organization named Youth Crossroads works with local police departments, school districts, and social services providers to improve safety and expand opportunity for local young people.

Kentucky’s Prichard Committee Student Voice Team (SVT) works to involve students as partners to improve Kentucky schools. With early support from the Greater Clark Foundation, the SVT developed and tested student-led efforts to boost social cohesion and improve the learning environment for those who may feel least connected to school structures and policies. The process has opened the door to new strategies to address student safety in the wake of recent school shootings.

In Baltimore, Maryland, after civic unrest following Freddie Gray’s death spotlighted the disparities in opportunities for young people, KaBOOM! launched Play More B’More to connect youth to opportunities for education, employment, and community service that offered leadership roles in improving their own neighborhoods.

Additional examples are offered in our full report, authored by Jme McLean of equity strategy and research firm Mesu Strategies, and in responses authored by members of PACE’s working group.

We learned from long-time practitioners of youth civic engagement and intergenerational equity that effective and responsible youth engagement rests on several key principles. These include a deep commitment to building trust; investment in youth power and a willingness to embrace shared decision making; attention to the unique needs and vulnerabilities of young people; a learning approach in which youth and adults share responsibility for interpreting data and experiences; and conscious efforts to connect activities involving youth to a broader infrastructure for civic change. Funders can play a unique and crucial role in establishing and upholding these principles in their roles as grantmakers, conveners, and influencers.

Implications For Funders

Funders already understand that behavioral health and personal safety contribute in crucial ways to “whole person” health. Similarly, a “whole community” vision of health and safety should seek out and raise up the voices and needs of young people, who are often leaders in confronting inequity and other community challenges.

Funders that wish to make an enduring difference in community health and safety would be wise to support youth as full and valued participants in civic discourse and decision making.

Advocating for authentic youth involvement in setting priorities, identifying solutions, and influencing the systems that affect health and health equity is a strategy that will pay off for decades.

In the words of Yomira Zamora, one of the young people who offered a written reaction to PACE’s work: “Funding youth-led organizations or programs is … an investment for the health and public safety of our future societies. I am paying my knowledge forward to younger generations that will be leading social justice movements and creating change globally to make our communities healthier and safer.”

Jackie Martinez, another youth contributor, reminded us: “The future is being rewritten by a generation of young innovators with the power to see what others don’t. Think about what could happen once we equip these young innovators with the right tools.”


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