No Talking About Us Without Us: Why Youth Need a Choice and a Voice

Tim Baack is being honored as a Champion of Change for his work to combat homelessness among children and youth.


There’s a saying amongst those of us who work with runaway and homeless youth that I’ve heard often during our annual national conference: No talking about us without us. I like this phrase – I mean I really like it – because I think in a simple yet deeply profound way it captures the essence of youth leadership and genuine youth-led services. Youth have the biggest stake in everything we try to do, every new program or service or strategy or initiative we pilot or expand or maintain or end, because at the end of the day it’s their lives we’re talking about.

And yes, as administrators and counselors and social workers and educators we talk an awful lot about youth. What we think they need. Or don’t need. What they want. Or don’t want. How we can provide the most effective and efficient services, and where to find the resources (staff, money, community support, political will) needed to create and sustain the programs we believe youth so desperately need. And to be quite frank, if we’re good at what we do – and again I mean really good at it – then we’re pretty on target most of the time. But if you think about it, most of the time isn’t good enough when we’re talking about the survival of our youth.

No talking about us without us. When I hear this, I am reminded that the very best we can offer our youth is not just a seat at the table, but - as often as we can - a seat at the head of the table. Want to know what youth need? Ask them. Eager to know early in the game, when you’re developing a new program or writing a new funding proposal in support of service expansion, what resources youth are willing and able to access? Bring a group of young people together and ask them for their ideas, their hopes, their challenges, what’s worked for them in the past, and what hasn’t. And then – and this is the most important part – listen to what they have to say to you. And – make sure you understand what it is they’re trying to say to you.

 Of course, allowing youth real and meaningful input in what your organization does and doesn’t do, what services you provide or stop offering, where scarce resources get allocated and limited staff time and energy get directed, isn’t always easy. I have to admit, sometimes the last thing I want to hear is that someone thinks I'm full of it: especially from someone I’m trying my hardest to help. But truthfully, once I get past my own stuff, I find over and over that the best work we at Pathfinders do on behalf of our youth is work that youth had a voice in developing, a hand in delivering, and a stake in continuing. Our Outreach Drop-In Center is a recent and real example of this. We spent a long time – and by long I mean years – thinking about, and planning, and researching, and proposing what we knew was a desperately needed new resource for our youth and young adults. How could we be so sure? Because that’s what youth kept telling us they needed. And not just a simple drop-in center to hang out in, but a place where runaway and homeless youth could get something to eat, and take a shower, and do their laundry, and get on the computer, and get help finding a job, or a place to live, or at least a place to get off the streets for a while to warm up, or cool down, or just be safe for a little while. And guess what the majority of youth said was the most important thing they needed - someone to talk to. Seriously! A caring adult to talk to – in administrative talk we call that case management, or counseling, or mentoring support. But I like how our youth said it – in their own voice – better.

Our new transitional housing program, which we call Q-BLOK, is another example of how important genuine youth input is when creating truly innovative and effective programs. Early in our planning, staff had some really great ideas about how we could provide housing for young LGBTQ adults by relying on the proverbial kindness of strangers and recruiting volunteers who would agree to open their homes to our youth. After all, we had done our homework and found other communities in other parts of the country that had successfully used variations of this approach. But when we asked youth what they thought, we heard repeatedly that our LGBTQ youth feared being too vulnerable and too easily taken advantage of if their housing was so dependent on someone else, especially a someone else they didn’t know. So we changed course with our program model, and in taking a different direction, we now have a transitional housing program where over 80% of our most vulnerable youth have successfully transitioned into independence and healthy adulthood.

 Youth leadership, civic engagement, community involvement, youth boards and advisory committees – all different ways of saying the same thing: youth need to have a voice and a choice when it comes to how we are trying to help them create their own futures. It’s not always easy to make room at the table for young people. It’s even harder to make sure that ALL young people are given the same genuine invitation to sit down with us and tell us what they most want and need. LGBTQ youth, or youth with significant mental health concerns, or those with no high school diploma and no job and no place to call home, or those whose lives have been intertwined with the child welfare or juvenile justice system – there aren’t many tables where seats have been saved for youth like these. Yet at Pathfinders, those are exactly the youth we are honored to be called to serve. And those are the same youth who remind us – as often as we need it – to make sure to include them in the conversation. No talking about us without us. I couldn’t have said it better myself, which, come to think of it, is pretty much the point…..

Tim Baack is  Executive Vice President of Pathfinders

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