In this day and age, there seems to be a shift in the way our society remembers and utilizes the lived experiences of its people. Whatever the reason is, whether it be to highlight success stories or bring light to where there is room for improvement, people are coming out of the shadows to claim their rights and take back their power. This can be seen in today’s increasingly visible and socially responsive citizen protests, employee strikes, and the challenging of “business as usual” in American government and politics.
As an advocate I can see these steps being taken in my own state of Washington, particularly around foster care reform and ending youth homelessness. Why is this? Because they’re realizing that lived experience of the people they serve, is far more telling than academic publishing and expensive private consultants. I can see organizations and government agencies seeking the voices of those most impacted through focus groups, policy advocacy, and youth advisory boards.
A youth advisory board (YAB) is a body of young people appointed by an organization to inform and advise policies and practices that directly impact them. I’ve sat on two of them over the last three years, and in that time, I’ve learned how important it is for these kinds of boards to exist. They provide an array of personal experiences, as opposed to just using heuristics, to shape systems and services—but for that to be effective, people must get involved. Drawing from my own experience, I’m going to tell you why it’s worth participating on a YAB.
REASON 1: PEOPLE ARE ACTIVELY LOOKING FOR YOUR INSIGHT.
As I mentioned above, lived experience is being sought out for the purposes of improving programming and outcomes. YABs are formed because organizations have made the decision to listen to youth, and this decision is not cheap. To collect feedback, organizations must invest time and work into creating a plan, securing the physical location of where the feedback would be collected, and finding or developing feedback methods. To make sense of the feedback requires money to pay the people going through the information, to pay people to think and plan about what to do with the feedback, and to pay people to implement.
My point is, nobody spends that kind of money on work they do not need to get done—and there are many agencies and organizations in the state that have decided to take on the work of stakeholder engagement by instating YABs. There are many YABs within the state that are looking for people to participate.
REASON 2: GREAT SUPPLEMENTAL INCOME WITHOUT GREAT TIME COMMITMENT.
Youth Advisory Boards can be a wonderful way for young people to contribute in their communities without putting their own lives on hold. YABs don’t necessarily meet frequently, but they meet regularly. Personally, I spend about 10 hours a month on working on one of my YABs and meet every 6 weeks for the other. In my experience, I’ve found organizations to be increasingly mindful of the members of their YABs and scheduling the time and place of the meetings accordingly. Things like school schedule and transportation are considered when scheduling meetings, and thus will often happen outside of day class hours and held at a location accessible from public transit.
For tax purposes, YAB members are usually classified as “volunteers” for the organization as opposed to an employee. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re working for free. While payment isn’t a guarantee in every case, it’s seen as a best practice for organizations to compensate YAB members for their time. Often this will be done in a stipend, distributed through a gift card, or straight to you and your bank account.
REASON 3: USE IT TO BUILD YOUR RESUME.
Do you need to feel compensated for your time, but can’t find a YAB in your area that pays? Have no fear—there are other payoffs that don’t involve money. It’s a little something called “experience”.
This is another value of being a member of a YAB – you can put it on your resume! In the employment market, where college degrees and certifications make you desirable, it’s hard for young people to get a chance. We are denied entry level work due to “lack of experience”, but how are we supposed to gain experience if nobody gives us a chance? As young people seeking employment, we are at a disadvantage simply due to our age.
Being on a YAB is work – and you can use your experience as a YAB member to build skills and evolve your resume. On the board you are working with others to synthesize your story with the technical experience of “adult” or “staff” workers of these systems and programs. You act as an advisor and consultant to leaders and directors, guiding them to make their work as effective as possible. And in this process, you learn a lot too: program design, grant reviewing, systems thinking, the inner workings of a program/organization, and so much more. These are valuable skills—use them! YABs have been a great place for me to develop my technical knowledge of the foster care and youth homelessness systems in my community, and this technical knowledge makes me a marketable employee in the nonprofit and social service fields.
YABs are investments in programs, but also in young people. The organizers of these YABs want to give participants something to walk away with, something to show for their time and efforts. YABs are great for young people because they’re so flexible. You could negotiate monetary payment, volunteer hours, service learning time, maybe even college credit! If you’re curious about how your time on a YAB could enhance your resume, reach out to the organizers and ask about what different types of compensation and professional development are involved. I promise you, they want you to benefit just as much as you do.
REASON 4: YOU CAN BUILD A NETWORK.
Speaking of employability and resumes, joining a YAB can supplement your career search through the people you meet. On a YAB you are working alongside not only your peers, but also agency staff, service providers, systems and public leadership. Working with people from an array of backgrounds and professions is a professional skill in and of itself, but also it means that you have access to a diverse, hearty set of professional references.
Having a robust professional network shows that you are a multifaceted person, who goes outside of the conventional box to get important work done. Personally, this network is a big incentive for my participation on boards. Right now, I don’t know what I want for a career; I just know it involves making public systems work better for people. Being on a YAB allows me to do that kind of work right now, as well as see in my older colleagues what “making public systems work better for people” looks like in different forms and fields. This network gives me insight into different pockets of the system and allows me a closer view inside to see if this is what I might want to do later in life.
Over the last few years, participating on two YABS and collaborating with so many organizations and agencies, I seem to have “gotten my name out there” in the service field. Every now and again I will step into a meeting and meet someone from an organization who shakes my hand and says with a big smile on their face, “Azia? Oh, I’ve heard of you!” Now this might be my ego talking, but there’s something very satisfying about that. Aside from technical knowledge and professional gain, joining a YAB has exposed me to people and providers with the same vision as me and has introduced me to a true sense of aligned, intentional community. Moving forward, both in my personal goals and professional mission, I feel like I am not alone, due to the way YABs bring people together from across professions.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
We are living in an age like never before. In an age that is calling on the stories of everyday people, as opposed to repeating a single narrative. We are living in a time where there is room for us at the table to decide what our society, and our future looks like. If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m telling you that Youth Advisory Boards are one of the golden ways for young people to be a part of shaping our society. Youth Advisory Boards have positions literally designed by organizations for young people to sit at the table and contribute to their community. They serve as an opportunity for a young person to be a part of something larger than themselves, develop as a professional, and build an interesting network across organizations and industry fields.
You learn so much thanks to YABs: about systems, about services, about people and programs. More enlightening than anything else, however, is the things you’ll learn about yourself during all this. Being on a YAB just might help you figure out where you’ve been, and where you’re going. But the only way to learn is to find out.
If you want to find out for yourself (oh, I hope you do!), check out the links below for more opportunities and information.
Passion2Action (WA state)