Adapted by Anna Libertin, NACAC’s communications specialist, from a webinar by Kim Stevens and Nathan Ross.
Kim Stevens is a program manager at NACAC who specializes in post-adoption support, youth development, training for caregivers, and trauma and healing. Nathan Ross is the youth programs supervisor at FosterAdopt Connect in Missouri. Adopted from foster care at 13, Nathan uses his personal experiences to help child welfare professionals and parents engage and support young people.
Kim and Nathan presented “Positive Youth Development and Youth Advocacy,” a webinar for NACAC that included the tips below. View this webinar and others by experts in the field here.
Youth networks provide young people with more than just friendship and fun: they offer youth a platform to stand up for themselves, create change for other young people, and heal from trauma. You can work to lift up these voices by offering assistance in creating and enhancing youth networks. By dedicating your time and your skills, you can help youth leaders overcome specific challenges, develop valuable leadership and professional skills, and maintain harmony within the group.
Building and Supporting Team of Young People
As an adult supporter, you can be a catalyst to help young people who have experienced foster care and/or adoption create youth advocacy and support networks. These networks give young people the opportunity to lead and overcome challenges on their own in a safe, nurturing environment. As a supporter, your role is to ensure physical and psychological safety, provide advice, and make professional connections. Specifically, adult leaders:
- Determine and maintain an appropriate structure for the group, so that youth can know what is expected of them and what they can expect from their participation in the group.
- Develop supportive relationships with youth and among youth, so that they can recognize and practice essential relationship-building skills, including navigating disagreements and compromise.
- Model healthy and effective interpersonal, professionals, and advocacy skills.
- Maintain inclusivity and security within the group, so that every group member feels accepted and able to discover who they are.
- Offer youth stepping stones to success such as professional references, internships, academic opportunities, and more.
- Provide guidance during practice (transportation, scheduling, funding) and ideological (group disagreements, temporary disappointments, instances of disrespect among group members) challenges.
In short, an adult leader offers perspective and direction, ensuring that every group member can meet their full potential.
Before you get too deep in the planning stages, you’ll want to make sure you have a group of young people involved in the process. The first step to creating a team is reaching out those young adults you know who have foster care or adoption experience and asking them if they’re interested in participating or if they know anyone else who might be interested. From there, you can also reach out to:
- Facebook groups for adoptees or young people who experienced care
- Facebook groups for adoptive or foster parents
- Adolescent units and independent living programs
- Youth and parent support groups
- Post-adoption centers
- Adoption and foster care agencies
Remember, you don’t need to have a huge group before you begin. If you build a network with a few motivated young people that meets the community’s needs, other young adults will find you!
Considering Your Options
Once you have a group of young people identified, it’s time to gather and brainstorm your purpose and goals. There are a variety of types of youth networks. For example:
- Youth advisory boards give youth a voice in discussions around policies and practices that affect them and help adults better understand their needs and experiences.
- Research projects connect youth with agencies that do research, providing them with an opportunity to contribute an authentic “lived experience” to the project, helping them understand the professional side of the child welfare system, and building an understanding of specific child welfare policies. Eventually, this group can grow into an advocacy group or aid other efforts, as the data collected and stories crafted can contribute to policy reform. Research projects also teach youth professional skills such as data collection and analytical writing.
- Advocacy networks gather youth together with an aim of addressing system, policy, and program issues by creating opinion pieces, commentaries, statehouse events, directed testimony, and letters to leaders on bills. Advocacy networks help youth develop life skills like public speaking, creative expression and strategic story-telling.
- Support groups offer young people the opportunity to make connections with their peers, address challenges and successes, and build a stronger community.
- Artistic and story-telling groups create newsletters, videos, papers, plays, and art show. This isn’t just a way to put youth stories out in the public; it also encourages youth to express themselves and take ownership of their stories.
- Mentoring programs teach youth essential life skills and build healthy relationships with stable adults—one of the greatest predictors for positive change in a young adult’s life.
- Social clubs that host events like retreats, potluck dinners, holiday parties, and events introduce youth who were adopted or in foster care to one another, helping them develop relationship-building skills and feel less alone in their experiences. Planning these events helps youth learn how to work together and develop organizational and communication skills.
If your group of young people struggle to determine what the group will look like, ask them what they want from this experience. What issues do they want to change? What do they want to say to the world? How much time and energy do they have to commit to this new project? The answers can help you collectively decide what type of group to pursue.
Purpose and Guidelines
After cycling through brainstorming and youth outreach a few times, it’s time to enter a more detailed planning stage. Of course, this means addressing the logistics:
- Where will you meet? Find and secure a location that is inclusive, accessible, easy to travel to, and non-threatening for all youth.
- What will your meetings look like? Build a structured but flexible agenda, allowing times for socializing, discussions, and strategizing. Work with youth to determine what they want from each meeting. No matter what your group’s purpose is, early meetings will be spent getting to know each other, refining goals, and making plans for the future. Create activities and foster discussions in these early meetings so that the ice can be broken and progress can be made. Once out of this planning stage, you will need to check in with participants to ensure that all members are still committed and connected to the group’s goals and mission.
- When will you meet? Consider the meeting’s length, frequency, and regularity. Will you meet seasonally? Monthly? Weekly? Between high school or college, extracurriculars, family time, and other commitments, youth often have busy schedules and some might not be able to drive, which means that the frequency, length, and meeting time must be determined in part by the youth themselves.
Each meeting and group structure will depend on the group’s purpose. However, your main role in the network is ensuring that all youth engagement is PEERS-focused:
- Purposeful. Youth networks are geared toward positive youth development—intentionally providing youth with professional, social, and essential life skills needed to succeed and helping youth feel pride in their efforts. Ideally, this means each youth member evolves from participant to student to leader to master.
Track progress and show the group that their ideas are valuable by keeping notes of the discussions. Write down or take pictures of the flowcharts, brainstorming sessions, art work, and discussions so that youth have tangible documentation of their work and ideas.
- Enlightening. All youth need reminders that they are capable of doing great things in the world. Youth networks can help young people discover their values and their passions, in addition to teaching them how to address and adjust to potential success and disappointment. Step back and allow youth to make mistakes so that they can learn how to respond to consequences and discover their own values.
- Encouraging. Young people are often told what they can’t do instead of learning what they can do. Maintain a group that is strengths-based so that young adults can develop a sense of optimism and recognize challenges as opportunities for growth.
- Respectful. The youth you work with are actual members and participants of your efforts: they are not children you are supervising. Maintain respect with and among the group members so that everyone can feel that they have a valuable voice in the decision-making process. Similarly, the work you do isn’t a service to group members; it’s a collaboration, which means the young adults you work with must also take ownership of their own responsibilities within the group and their role in ensuring that all members feel welcome.
- Safe. As the adult leader, maintaining safety is one of your main responsibilities. Ensure that everyone feels physically and emotionally safe by setting ground rules at the initial meeting and asking youth members to suggest boundaries, standards, and rules they feel comfortable with. Explain and maintain the value of confidentiality in the group, group expectations, and group structure, among other things, so that group members can see the space you create as something stable and secure. Have one of your youth leaders go over the ground rules before every meeting.
At the end of each meeting, check in with one another to ensure that each member feels committed and connected to creating a PEERS-focused group. Don’t be afraid to make changes as needed to accommodate the group.
Whatever the group’s purpose, provide guidance and training whenever necessary. For advocacy efforts, this means assisting youth in public speaking, practicing speeches, and adapting stories to fit specific groups and topics. It also means discovering the most effective way for each group member to tell their story, as not all members will feel comfortable sharing through a speech and might prefer to tell their story through art, music, poetry, or other methods. In other groups, you might be responsible for guiding young adults in event planning, from securing locations to media promotion. Learn more about strategic sharing here.
Continue to Seek Input as You Grow
As you grow your team, avoid exclusivity or rigidity around membership: youth networks exist to combat feelings of isolation and “otherness” through community and togetherness. Also recognize that as new members join your initiative, they will provide valuable feedback. Listen to and encourage these new perspectives so that you can build a network that meets the community needs and immediately establishes an open-minded atmosphere.
Also, think about what role each member plays. Are there youth leaders in this program? Are there roles and responsibilities not being met? Are there individuals who just want to be participants? Are there ways to encourage quieter members to speak up? You can continue to identify and build leaders as the group grows and changes.
As you support the youth network, you will inevitably encounter challenges. While it is important for group members to address these challenges on their own so that they can learn from their mistakes, develop problem-solving skills, and grow as a team, in some cases the obstacles faced require your guidance or distract from the network’s purpose. These challenges include:
- Transportation: Young people may be from areas across the city or town and many won’t have cars. Choose meeting locations near public transportation whenever possible. Find allies and adults who can offer transportation, or work with the youth to determine carpooling schedules so that anyone who wants to attend meetings can.
- Scheduling: Like transportation issues, scheduling can be a challenge because all members have different activities, responsibilities, and availabilities. Address this challenge early on by planning out the schedule as far ahead as possible, so that participants know what times to place on hold.
- Funding: Depending on what youth work you’re doing, you will manage various funds. In some cases, you will have to pay for transportation to and from an event. In other situations, you might want to give youth a stipend to recognize them as professionals and acknowledge that their time is valuable. Finding funding is not easy, but there are grants you can apply for depending on the type of work you’re doing. If you can show the positive effect your work has on youth, you may be able to access funds from public agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Tip: Whenever possible, save money for food. Food breaks the ice during meetings and can convince new people to join!
- Families: Sometimes, parents are hesitant to allow youth to join groups because of the added responsibility it might entail for the families’ already busy schedule. If this is the case, impress upon the parent that networks like these are extremely valuable for youth, providing them with the interpersonal skills, communication skills, and opportunities for positive personal growth. Help the parent understand that by sharing their story and hearing other stories, youth can understand both the child and the parent’s perspective better and work toward a more unified family experience. In short, work within youth networks helps preserve families.
If you know leaders of parent support groups or advocacy networks, consider hosting the parent and youth meetings at the same time and in the same location, so that there isn’t an added burden on the parent’s schedule.
- Staff support: If you’re the only adult leader in the group, you might find yourself getting overwhelmed—often, you’re handling a lot of emotions and dynamics, in addition to trying to handle the logistics of maintaining a youth network. Avoid burnout by creating support systems for yourself—just like you created support systems for youth! In addition to this personal network, as youth members to reach out to adults they know who might be interested in helping carry some of the responsibilities and reach out to your own communities as well!
- Disappointments: Especially in advocacy networks, youth will come up against disappointment or missteps, and maintaining persistence amid resistance can be hard. Unlike the aforementioned challenges, you can’t avoid this—instead, just prepare to support youth when they face disappointment, and work to find meaning if they continue to work on a project. You can also prepare them upfront for the reality that change takes time.
The adult supporter gives youth a safe, empowering space to discover themselves, share their story, and fight for their community, in addition to teaching them essential life skills. As you engage youth, continue to check in with yourself and your efforts, ensuring that the experience is as intentional, strengths-based, enlightening, respectful, and safe as possible.