We’re Tara Gregory, Director of Research and Evaluation, and Bailey Blair, Youth Leadership in Kansas Program Associate, at Wichita State University’s Center for Community Support and Research (CCSR). CCSR was awarded a grant last year by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services to provide technical assistance and research services to leadership groups for youth with a mental illness diagnosis and their parents. Our first task was to better understand these groups, so we conducted focus groups with each site, asking questions about the nature of the groups and roles of the youth. Their qualitative responses and our observations indicated that while they highly value their groups, the adults tend to be in charge and youth perform tasks like choosing food, picking up trash, etc.
So our question was: How could we honor what the members love about their groups but also move them toward best practices for positive youth development/leadership (e.g., Eccles and Gootman, 2002)? Our approach was to gently present “what is” in their own words alongside “what could be” as a way to respect the members’ voices but also offer ideas for enhanced experiences.
- Instead of just giving the leadership groups a written report, we displayed a Wordle™ graphic, which contained all of their qualitative responses, during a gathering of all groups. This was an engaging method that showed them the results “in their own words” without inserting our thoughts.
- We then displayed a model of meaningful youth participation and asked them to compare it to the Wordle™ visuals. This spurred a very energetic and insightful discussion among youth and adults.
- Next, we gave them an opportunity to incorporate their ideas into a visual representation of their vision or aspirations for the groups as a whole.
- Finally, we’re following up with technical assistance and written guidelines on options to further incorporate true youth leadership in their groups.
- By presenting the qualitative data juxtaposed with the ideal model, the groups had an “A-ha!” moment that was totally theirs. They were not left feeling like they had done something wrong and were even able to laugh at the discrepancies. This appeared to be a moment of genuine empowerment.
- Highlighting the discrepancy between “what is” and “what could be” wasn’t enough. It was essential to make sure they had concrete ideas about how to move toward their self-determined vision.
Figure 1. Wordle graphic for responses to: “What are youth in charge of in this group”
Figure 2. Ladder of youth voice
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