Healthy Teen Network

The Importance of Teen Voices: “Nothing about Us without Us”

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Judith W. Herrman, PhD, RN, ANEF

For some of us, remembering how teens think means only to conjure up our thoughts from a few years ago. For others, it feels like ancient history and requires some time and effort to truly represent the thoughts of a young person. But it is with these thoughts and perspectives that we often shape those policies and programs designed to foster health in today’s teens. Rather than simply guiding our initiatives based on our recollections of youth priorities, or worse yet, using our adult insights to decide what is “best” for today’s youth, we need to seek out authentic teen voices and ensure that teen perspectives guide our efforts.

Although we cannot be assured that all teens speak with one voice, nor can we shape policy based purely on teen insights, we do need to “try our best” and consider the voices and perspectives of youth in all we do. There are various ways to do this—from informally talking with youth on what they consider is in their best interest, to rigorous research that controls variables ensuring valid findings. Each pole of this spectrum has pros and cons as we generate programs and funnel our energies toward those initiatives that are most effective in helping teens.

Key to developing this youth-based framework is the art of listening. We may spend a lot of time talking to teens, and perhaps complaining when they don’t listen to us, rather than actively and intently listening to their thoughts and priorities. By listening to teens we may best hear their perspectives and concerns and, thereby, attend to the realities of current teen life.

Helping teens articulate their thoughts should also be a role for adult advocates. Current knowledge of brain development demonstrates that the maturing prefrontal cortex allows teens to put their thoughts into words. Assisting teens to find the words that accurately describe their thoughts and using other media, such as journaling, art, drama, dance, and creative expression, may help teens find their voices.

Research methods that may help us discover and use teen voices include surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Each of these allows us to “listen” to teens in a systematic way and to interpret their thoughts in accurate ways. Although these methods have their positive attributes, they also have limitations. For instance, teens often tire of long surveys, yielding inaccurate results. Teens may feel intimated during personal interviews or limited in their expression during a focus group based on the dynamics of the group. Creative methods to conduct youth-based research that reveal the candid voices of teens are being developed to allay these concerns. Using journaling via text messages or written word, open-ended sentence completion exercises, videos, photographs, and other expressions of voice through media are now more common ways to access the views of teens.

Just using teen-oriented methods is not always enough. We need to ensure that teens are part of the process such that the youth lens truly depicts the thoughts and perspectives of teens. Youth advisory boards, teen representation in program planning, and teen involvement that truly relies on their perspectives—rather than just allowing them to serve as “token voices”—are integral in developing youth-focused initiatives. The phrase, “Nothing about us without us,” can go a long way to ensure youth-based and youth-oriented programs and policies designed to promote teen health and speak to the realities of teen life in today’s world!

Judith W. Herrman, PhD, RN, ANEF, is a Professor, School of Nursing, University of Delaware and a Healthy Teen Network Board Member

New Opportunities to Guide Opportunity Youth to Career Opportunities!

Bob Reeg

Bob Reeg

You might have missed this news, since it was barely covered in the mainstream press, but the U.S. Congress actually DID do something of importance to young people before taking its summer recess. In late July, it passed and President Obama signed into law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the first revitalization of the public workforce system since 1998–yes, over fifteen years!

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act matters to adolescents and young adults as it positions public workforce system leaders and workforce service providers to better support youth at greatest risk of failure to obtain jobs and enter career pathways. Soon, local workforce authorities receiving WIOA formula grant funds will be required to spend at least 75 percent of those funds on out-of-school youth, compared to just 30 percent under the WIOA predecessor law, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).

WIOA also changes youth eligibility requirements by establishing separate criteria for out-of-school and in-school youth, including removing income eligibility requirements for most out-of-school youth and raising the eligible age for such youth to 16 through 24. In-school youth age eligibility continues to be ages 14-21.

Also, WIOA places a new priority on work-based learning by providing that at least 20 percent of local youth formula funds be used for work experiences such as summer jobs, pre-apprenticeship training, on-the-job training and internships that have academic and occupational education as a component.

WIOA links youth workforce services to the attainment of secondary school diplomas, entry into postsecondary education and career readiness, and to the attainment of postsecondary credentials aligned with in-demand industry sectors or occupations. Additional allowable activities include financial literacy education and entrepreneurial skills training.

Also, under the new law, youth with disabilities will receive extensive pre-employment transition services so they can successfully obtain competitive integrated employment. And WIOA reauthorizes and enhances two workforce programs of particular importance to marginalized youth– Job Corps and YouthBuild. The new law preserves a feature of the predecessor WIA in that pregnant and parenting youth are specifically identified as a subpopulation of both out-of-school youth and in-school youth.

To learn even more about the youth provisions of WIOA, visit the websites of Healthy Teen Network allies, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Youth Employment Coalition.

Enactment of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, as well as the Obama Administration’s recent release of Ready to Work, a report and recommendations for strengthening federal job training programs, ensures that there will be considerable policy implementation activity bubbling at the state and local levels of government in the next months and years. Assuredly, opportunities will arise for organizations and individuals that support youth, including adolescent sexual and reproductive health professionals, to weigh-in as their public workforce systems and funded providers adjust to the new rules of the road.

I have uncovered a few informational resources to get you prepped for local action. First, I draw your attention to What Works in Job Training: A Synthesis of the Evidence, which the Obama Administration released as part of its Ready to Work initiative.  This publication includes a most helpful chapter summarizing the evidence on the effectiveness of job training programs for youth. What has been found to work includes: early exposure to career and higher education information and opportunities; work experiences for youth still in school; occupation- and industry-based training programs, and comprehensive and integrated models that combine education, occupational skills, and support services.

Another resource to check out is Mentoring Youth and Young Parents: A Guidebook for Programs Helping Youth and Young Parents Navigate a Pathway to Self-Sufficiency. This publication was developed to support the Young Parents Demonstration project, a U.S. Department of Labor-funded initiative in the early 2010s. The publication includes learnings from the project grantees.

And then to go back a bit in time to 2001 is Leveraging Youth Employment Systems to Prevent Unintended Pregnancy, which presents the results of a nationwide survey of youth employment programs. That survey showed that most youth employment programs view unintended pregnancy and childbearing as significant barriers for program participants to successful program completion and transition to the labor force. The study also reviews some innovative and promising pregnancy prevention programs that have been set up by youth employment programs, including referral arrangements, educational workshops, and counseling sessions.

So, now armed with this heads-up that the workforce development kettle will certainly be simmering again, and presented with some resources for your follow-up, my questions to adolescent sexual and reproductive health providers are:

  • Do you know which agencies and organizations in your community are the primary providers of workforce services to youth and young adults?
  • Do you have relationships with these organizations?  If so, how are you working together?
  • What adolescent sexual and reproductive health information and services could you bring to youth being served through workforce programs?
  • What will you do to become part of the youth workforce policy implementation and service delivery conversation?

Bob Reeg is the Program Development and Public Policy Consultant at Healthy Teen Network.

Uncovering the Story of Community Engagement through Learning Walks

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Youth theater group at Indigenous Peoples Task Force

The Native Youth Project (NYP), funded by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was implemented in seven Native American communities, namely, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Indigenous Peoples Task Force, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, The Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, Wind River Tribal Youth of Northern Arapaho Tribe, First Nations Community HealthSource, and Center for Prevention & Wellness, Salish Kootenai College, to select, adapt, and implement evidence-based programs. Upon its completion in August 2013, it was evident that the NYP was successful and accomplished its objectives. However, the quantitative project results were not suitable for telling the story of the process grantees engaged in to make NYP a reality in their communities.

To uncover the invisible work behind the measurable deliverables, the CDC and project partner, National Network of Public Health Institutes (NNPHI), contracted with Healthy Teen Network to conduct Learning Walks. Learning Walks provide the opportunity to learn about the process of engaging stakeholders, the unique geographical context that shaped the implementation of the project, and the social impact NYP had in the community.

Conducting a Learning Walk is a popular strategy used in the education field: an external observer visits a community to document lessons learned, provide input to guide decision making for future project funding, and gain understanding of the impact that a particular project might have had in a community.

Healthy Teen Network staff, Mila Garrido Fishbein, Valerie Sedivy, and Genevieve Martínez García, recently conducted a series of Learning Walks with some of the NYP grantees. The intent is to shed some light on the less tangible, but still powerful outcomes of the NYP—the community engagement and social impact. Following the site visits, Healthy Teen Network developed reports to highlight the successes and stories learned from the Learning Walks.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Healthy Teen Network can support your agency to conduct qualitative evaluation, such as Learning Walks, contact Mila Garrido Fishbein or complete a service request form today.

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