It’s not a program; it’s a practice

Youth voice at Camp Fire 

Living out your values is never easy. One of our core Camp Fire values is, “We honor the power of young people.” To us, honoring power means sharing power through significant youth participation and decision-making.  

But what does this look like in practice? We’re working hard to authentically integrate youth voice through all layers of our organization. It takes forethought and extra energy to upend the adult-led status quo, but it’s worth it if it builds a Camp Fire truly for and by young people.  

It’s a matter of equity 

Youth Voice isn’t just a nice-to-have. It’s a justice issue. 

“A huge part of it for me is the equity piece,” said Ben Matthews, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Access Manager. “Young people are also a marginalized and oppressed group of people, because of their age and adults’ assumption that they don’t know how to make decisions for themselves.”  

This bias is called adultism, and it’s pervasive in our culture. Ben explained that a major red flag for an adultism attitude is responding to questions from young people with “Because I said so,” “Because I’m the adult,” or “Because that’s just the way we do things.”  

“It’s so much easier to shut down the conversation, rather than to reflect on, ‘Wait a second, why do we do that?’” Ben said.  

Being open to questions doesn’t mean a rule has to change. But treating young people as valuable members of a community means listening to their concerns, brainstorming solutions, and letting them share responsibility for taking action. After all, being a kid or teenager now is completely different from being a kid or teenager 20, 10 or even five years ago. Every generation has unique experiences, challenges and needs. Growing up is hard

Adultism: Prejudice or discrimination against young people as a group. (Merriam-Webster)

“Technology, language, the way relationships work—all of that has changed so much,” said Ben. “There’s really no way an adult or anyone more than a couple years older can have any idea what [young people] need right now,” said Ben.  

Challenging adultism by championing youth voice ensures young people get the Camp Fire they need, not the one adults want them to have. 

What is youth voice? 

Inspired by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality’s work on youth voice, Nikki Roe Cropp, Senior Director, Program Effectiveness, explained that when youth voice is fully integrated into an organization, young people share leadership with adults. On the way to that holistic collaboration, organizations often start with seeking youth input and giving young people more choices. The goal is to build on those valuable beginnings to arrive at true power-sharing.  

  • Input: Creating opportunities for youth feedback on activities, programming aspects, and more. 
  • Choice: Creating opportunities for young people to make relevant, meaningful and authentic decisions.  
  • Shared Leadership: Creating opportunities for all youth to lead in diverse, varied and age-appropriate ways. 

“Youth voice has been a crucial part of Camp Fire for a long time,” said Nikki, “but it’s one of those areas we need to talk about, concentrate on, and ensure we’re doing intentionally—and developmentally.”  

Going from status quo to youth-led 

Making the shift to shared leadership means overcoming ingrained cultural beliefs about how adults and young people are supposed to interact. Both Ben and Nikki emphasized how liberating (and even relaxing) it can be for adult leaders to share power with young people. 

"It’s really getting adults to act as facilitators of learning rather than instructors of content,” said Nikki. “It’s having power with young people instead of power over." Nikki Roe Cropp

“It’s really getting adults to act as facilitators of learning rather than instructors of content,” said Nikki. “It’s having power with young people instead of power over.”  

Sometimes organizations think of youth voice as something for older teens only, but shared leadership can start early and deepen as children grow alongside their leadership skills. Adults still need to be responsible for making safety decisions along the way, but other leadership roles can be shared at all ages. Youth voice isn’t always a linear trajectory, and Camp Fire creates space to share power in multiple overlapping ways. The leadership opportunities listed below roughly correlate to developmental stages, but don’t underestimate younger kids’ abilities to carry out more high-responsibility power-sharing. We want young people to be the leaders they are today, not just build leadership skills for the future.  

  • Lower responsibility leadership tasks:  
  • Handing out materials 
  • Presenting ideas to a small group 
  • Helping peers 
  • Setting up snacks 
  • Helping a group stay positive 
  • Taking responsibility for daily routines 
  • Explaining directions 
  • Intermediate-responsibility leadership tasks:  
  • Leading a group discussion, song, project, event, etc. 
  • Co-facilitating program activities with an adult 
  • Participating in a program task force or leadership program 
  • High-responsibility leadership tasks:  
  • Planning program activities 
  • Facilitating program activities 
  • Mentoring other youth 
  • Participating in a youth advisory group 
  • Starting their own initiative or group 
  • Shared power in organizational decision-making 
Illustrations of young people
Illustrations of young people

Advising the adults 

Youth advisory groups deserve a special mention in any discussion of youth voice. They are a powerful channel for integrating youth voice into the larger organization—if the advisory component is prioritized. Leadership programs aren’t the same things as an advisory board whose function is to practice leadership. It’s easy for adults to blur the lines between youth programming and youth advisory cabinets, but adult sponsors can help maintain the focus.    

Julia Fleenor Bejarano, Camp Fire Marketing Manager, and Hannah Howard, Camp Fire Evaluation Manager, both serve as Youth Voice Coordinators for the National Youth Advisory Cabinet (YAC).  

“We try to be really clear [with leadership.] The youth are here to help you make decisions. Come ready.” - Julia Fleenor Bejarano

“We think of our YAC like a person on our staff,” explained Hannah. “We treat our YAC members equally; they are important.” 

YAC members are 16 to 18 years old, have Camp Fire experience, and commit to meeting (virtually) with Camp Fire adult leaders (our CEO, president, senior directors and directors) once a month, September through May. As experts in youth experience, they are paid for their time. 

“We try to be really clear,” said Julia, on making sure other adult leaders understand the purpose of the YAC. “The youth are here to help you make decisions. Come ready.” 

YAC meetings include educational content when it’s necessary for them to fulfill their mission, but the first goal is shared leadership. YAC has advised on a wide variety of topics including website design, social media content, how to word youth survey questions, internal training courses and more. In the past, the YAC has led the redesign of awards and recognitions and traditionally been one of the first stops for strategic plan feedback.   

Julia and Hannah have led a professional learning community for Camp Fire affiliates interested in expanding youth voice and have met with other national youth organizations who want to start youth advisory groups. They report that it’s hard for adults everywhere to make the youth-voice shift.  

“It’s really hard for folks to wrap their brain around,” said Hannah. “It’s a longer process of rewiring our brains to understand that young people are equally if not more important in conversations about youth development. It’s a reframe of the power dynamics between adults and youth.”  

Learn more about youth voice at Camp Fire 

June 3, 2024

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