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Engaging and Empowering Youth Leaders*

Updated: Feb 21

*From a paper in the ALAR Journal Vol.11 No. 1, April 2006 (Action Learning Action Research) based on a presentation at the ALARPM Annual Conference: “Telling Our Stories”, University of Technology, Sydney, NSW, 1st October 2005.

teenagers with bikes at a student-led high school bike event

In 2005, I presented some of the process details of my recent work developing a secondary school vehicle trip-reduction program to the Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management community in Sydney, Australia. With the exception of social media, I still find this overview very helpful. Excerpts of that article follow, with a link to the full text.


This paper outlines experiences gained in a collaborative approach to involve teenagers in the development of a sustainable transport program. The fundamental lesson learned was that it was beneficial for youths** to be engaged in a topic before being educated on it. Mentoring, training and support were the primary characteristics in building rapport with youth leaders. This non-coercive process enabled the youths to shape the look and feel of the outreach directed at their peers. The youth leaders were empowered to select and adapt objectives to suit their character and community. The programme co-ordinator’s main role was as a mentor – facilitating collaboration between other youth groups, resources and colleagues. Overall, the program was designed to build upon incentives that the youths valued; skill-building, environmental awareness, social interaction and a broader understanding of program issues.


Empowerment and Collaboration with Youth Leaders

Reaching out to youths is a non-coercive process of mentoring and relationship building. When a team of youth leaders is engaged in a topic they are more inclined to become advocates who reach out to other youth. They are better able to craft the look and feel of program initiatives while considering broad-visioning objectives. They make activities participative and fun because otherwise, the materials would be boring and an embarrassment to be associated with. When youths become engaged in a topic, the 'educator' can become a mentor who models a reflective practice of planning, action and critical reflection.

This form of education can be compared with leading an interpretive walk. Regardless of the topic or neighbourhood, leading a walk requires an awareness of participants’ moods, energies, dynamics, interests and pacing. To be effective, it must be entirely non-coercive. Participants must be engaged when on an interpretive walk or else they will just physically (or emotionally) walk away. More so, reaching out to youths is like ‘leading’ an interpretive walk through the participants’ very own neighbourhood. In many ways the youths are experts on many aspects of ‘the walk’ therefore can – and should – share the lead.


Skills Developed by Youth Leaders Through the Project

When 24 youth leaders from across the Greater Vancouver region were asked what they expected to gain from participating in a program to reduce car-trips to school, their responses were categorized as follows:

  • enhancing leadership skills 56%

  • increasing environmental awareness 33%

  • making new friends 26%

  • broader understanding of the program 26%

Enhancing Leadership Skills

Engaging students in the planning, action and reflection of the program’s development creates significant opportunities for participants. Youth leaders participating in this program were interested in learning skills not typically covered in the classroom; communication skills such as active listening, non-verbal communication, feedback, visual clues, and ‘making assumptions’. Other tools covered were action and event planning, fundraising, poster making, drama, theatre improve, bicycle maintenance, and the construction of chopper bikes.


Mentoring and Support

The program co-ordinator needed to model what they were asking the youths to be. Foremost, this meant demonstrating enthusiasm and support for the cause, and to the group. Sincerity was the most important characteristic: Dedicating time to youth groups cannot be faked. The youth participants needed to know that time had been budgeted to return to follow-up meetings and show support at events. A commitment had to be made to recognize the youth leaders as competent adults with credible ideas, plans and reflections.


Effective outreach requires participation from the target audience. When working to reduce car-trips to secondary schools, student leaders can play an essential role in any initiative or awareness-raising campaign. Moreover, involving youth leaders in the planning, development and critical reflection of a program strengthens both the program and the ability of the ‘target audience’ to take a lead in the implementation.

Full text of article

Engaging and Empowering Youth Leaders - ALAR Journal - April2006
Download PDF • 249KB

** as with the word ‘adult’, the plural of ‘youth’ has an added ‘s’.



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