Published: Feb. 9, 2022

The Youth First Youth Leaders Network (YFYL) is a group of youth activists, ages 18 to 29, who are interested in helping to lead campaigns to close youth prisons and invest in community alternatives in their states. The network brings together youth leaders from different states to work together to hone their leadership, advocacy skills and communications skills to help advance their state campaigns. The Research Hub for Youth Organizing at CU Boulder partnered with The Youth First Youth Leaders Network to conduct an evaluation of outcomes that included a survey and three focus groups designed to understand which components of the program were valuable or could be improved. The data collection took place in Summer 2021 and sampled members across all cohorts of the Youth Leaders Network, which ran on a 12-month basis. The evaluation resulted in a shortlist of effective practices, as well as recommendations for future network improvements.

There were 27 survey responses collected from the Youth Leaders Network. From that group, 9 people took part in the focus groups. The evaluation included young people who self-identified in the following groups: Formerly or currently incarcerated (n=10), current or former foster youth (n=3), homeless or formerly homeless (n=3), female (n=19), male (n=5), non-binary (n=2), bisexual or pansexual (n=6), black (n=18), white (n=2), Latinx (n=5), Indigenous (n=2). Summarized below are three overarching themes that emerged from the qualitative and quantitative results of the evaluation.

1.) The YLN created new and exciting opportunities for young people, and they have ideas about how to grow that benefit in the future. 

The YLN provided participants with opportunities that included both learning from each other virtually in meetings and travel that occurred throughout the work. One person described the process as “Connecting me to people that I never would have been connected to, and building better relationships, helped me grow as a youth leader.” Participants found it valuable to learn what other people were doing, including formal opportunities available in the movement (for example, fellowships). Young people also identified specific workshops that acted as valuable stepping stones, such as the financial literacy workshop, and public speaking and media training. In terms of recommendations, increasing the number of mentors and offering more state-to-state coverage and direct connection was a top priority. There was also a request for more opportunities to connect and share challenges across groups at the national level. 

2.) The YLN did a good job of incorporating and elevating youth voices and perspectives, and there is still potential for improvement in that domain.

We learned from respondents that incorporating youth into community organizing work isn’t easy. However, participants felt that YFI/YLN did a good job of encouraging youth involvement by providing support to the perspective that youth should be involved and are powerful contributors. Nearly all the focus group respondents were still involved in state campaigns, as one person stated, “[They] inspired me to grow as a leader and as a youth in my community.” Some participants recommended that there be more opportunities for minors to have input into the YLN planning. They described times in both YLN and local meetings where it was difficult to be heard by adults. As with many intergenerational organizing spaces, these recommendations cemented that there are still opportunities to examine and disrupt power dynamics that emerge related to the ages of participants.

3.) There is a great need for lifting up system-involved youth through leadership opportunities, employment opportunities, and direct support.

Within this category, there was more direct constructive feedback than in other categories. A few clear ideas were shared for supporting young people in the movement through new initiatives. These included:

  • Young people should be offered opportunities in paid leadership roles. 

    • We need more job opportunities or education opportunities because a lot of the young people who get involved in this work system are impacted themselves.”

  • Fellowship cohorts for young people would support peer networks and the movement.

  • Finding ways to support young people's basic needs is important to the movement.

Overall, all the youth involved found participation in the YLN to be a positive experience. This hinged on the personal support provided by YFI staff and the variety of workshops and learning opportunities created by the programs. In addition, youth directly benefited from the interpersonal connections and broadening perspectives made available through access to travel and convening. The young people in the cohorts care deeply about youth perspectives being elevated into leadership roles, and the YLN was a great start in that direction. There are still opportunities for adults to step-back and allow the voices of youth to fill spaces that are typically dominated by adult voices. In sum, the YLN met nearly all of their stated goals, and this evaluation illuminates areas for future growth as described by the youth who participated in this evaluation. You can read more from Advancing Youth Leadership when you click the link HERE.