5 reasons why youth should lead systems-change work

May 5, 2022

Increasingly, decision-makers and advocates are recognizing the importance of working with individuals whom programs and systems are designed to support. Many systems especially are designed to protect and support children, but their perspectives and ideas may be overlooked by adults who believe they know what is best.

The Iowa Department of Human Rights has taken a different approach by engaging youth who have faced marginalization and/or have been a part of the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. A Mid-Iowa Health Foundation grant has supported the department in building out the Youth Opportunity Pathway that provides opportunities along a continuum for young people to provide insight into what is happening within state systems, to work on solutions to address identified problems, to get them involved in advocating for policy and practice changes, and to build skills for career and leadership positions.  

According to Kayla Powell, Youth Development Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Human Rights, the purpose is “how can we create proximity between youth and systems, including the three branches of government in Iowa, to build an understanding of issues facing youth. We want more youth and young adults to learn about the decision-making process where they can make powerful and meaningful change that affects youth and their future.”

Here are 5 reasons why youth should be involved in systems-change efforts and how the Iowa Department of Human Rights approach is benefiting young people and our entire state.

1. Youth can share how they experience systems and programs.

Asking young people about their experiences with systems and programs provides critical information about what is working and where problems may exist.  

In administering the National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) survey, the Iowa Department of Human Services Rights gathers feedback on how youth in foster care are doing as they transition out of the system. The survey reaches youth at ages 17, 19, and 21 and measures outcomes in areas including financial self-sufficiency, education, homelessness, and high-risk behaviors. The NYTD report this year found that while young people are doing better in some measures, including access to health insurance and employment, there are disparities in outcomes, especially around education and homelessness.

The NYTD project also has implemented a “talking wall.” The wall is set up in group homes, detention centers and shelters throughout the year for young people to provide input into what would improve the foster care and juvenile justice systems. Last year, the wall collected nearly 2,000 post-it notes from 383 youth. Some of their reflections are captured in the image below:

In reflecting on these comments, young people engaged with the Iowa Department of Human Rights noted that one main theme is that youth in state systems are seeking to be heard, trusted, and valued by adults. This includes educating adults to be aware of and supportive of young people with different identities and cultures and building a more diverse workforce.

“One of the biggest themes that seems to fit into all these issues is a lack of representation in all aspects, whether it be foster care, juvenile justice, or whatever,” said Brianna Deason, a former Youth Action Squad member, who was formerly in foster care.  “There’s just a lack of representation, a lack of equity, a lack of understanding of culture. It’s an erasure of cultures.”

“Adults think youth don’t have an understanding of what’s happening, and they think we don’t comprehend that this is real life,” said Michelle Davenport, a current NYTD Ambassador. “But these comments again and again show that we always do. We know more than most people think.”

2. Youth have solutions to address the challenges they experience.

The Iowa Department of Human Rights doesn’t just stop at capturing young people’s perspectives on what is happening in state systems. They then give young people the opportunity to analyze the feedback received and to work together to implement solutions.

NYTD ambassadors advise on what questions to ask on the NYTD survey and help with the data collection to ensure it’s an equitable and inclusive process. After analyzing the results of this year’s survey, the ambassadors are working to address a couple of issues they saw emerge: disproportionality of challenges by race and young people’s lack of awareness of after-care services that can help them transition from the foster care system.

The Youth Justice Council, another group of leaders, has organized the nearly 2,000 post-it notes collected from the Talking Wall into themes and is now advocating with state leaders on solutions. One solution involves working with the Iowa Department of Human Services to re-write administrative code to specify what kinds of hygiene products should be offered, including tampons. Having better quality hygiene products available and products that meet the needs of diverse individuals are critical steps to supporting young people's health and well-being, as well as helping them feel respected and valued.

3. Youth are eager to get involved.

Young people who have experiences with state systems are eager to make conditions better for others.

“My passion has always been using my voice to uplift others, so giving the opportunity to be a part of making that happen for other people has been great,” Deason said.

Ava Palmer became the first chair of the Youth Justice Council and has ensured that each member of the council has a role, and they work together to define the group’s purpose around improving the juvenile justice system. Service is a component of the Department’s youth initiatives. One of the group’s first actions is to send care packages to youth in group homes and detention so they have access to hygiene products.

“I feel like we’re all able to get along and have great conversations about how we can make change, and we’re able to put our lived experiences together to come up with solutions,” Palmer said.

Youth working with the Iowa Department of Human Rights have also been active during the state Legislative session by sharing their perspective and experiences in advocating for policy changes at the Department of Human Services and Juvenile Court Services that would help children in the system stay better connected with people who are important to them, especially siblings.

Youth Action Squads are another way the Department of Human Rights has started to engage youth by guiding and supporting them in identifying issues, researching those issues, and implementing solutions. In its first year, the youth divided into two groups focusing on isolation during the pandemic and on racial justice. One of the projects the racial justice group specifically took on was advocating to Des Moines Public Schools to remove resource officers by presenting data that showed officers in schools traumatized students and impacted their learning, with youth of color disproportionately criminalized with simple misdemeanors that could be handled by other school staff. Des Moines Public Schools removed the resource officers last year and the Department of Human Rights has been tracking data showing the positive impact that it’s had for students, with decreased rates of student introduction to the juvenile justice system through this avenue.

4. Engaging youth now builds our workforce for tomorrow.

Giving youth opportunities to lead and drive change is encouraging young people to enter graduate school and explore careers in social work and mental health, which is especially important as Iowa grapples with a lack of a diverse workforce and a lack of providers overall in these high-demand sectors.

Elle Fitzgerald for example, is at the University of Northern Iowa working on her master’s in social work degree after participating on the Youth Action Squad last year. When she graduates, she plans to join a school district in Milwaukee to implement restorative justice practices and study the effectiveness before eventually returning to Iowa.

“I’m really excited to get to do that and to get to learn a lot and to access all the data to see what other places have tried,” Fitzgerald said, “If it works, it would be great to have the key to how we can get our public schools where they need to be.”

5. Experiences can inspire youth to become future leaders.

Seeing different leadership roles within state government and forming relationships with leaders helps youth see opportunities they may not have considered before.

Youth Shadow Week, for example, pairs youth connected to the Iowa Department of Human Rights with leaders in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government that they most want to learn about. An evaluation of the experience showed that among the 28 youth who participated, all were more likely to engage with state leaders because of the experience and they understood why their involvement in state government is important. Eighty-nine percent said that because of the experience, they now see themselves working in state government.

Of the state leaders who participated, 95% reported a better understanding of the influence youth can have within the state and 91% said they are more likely to engage youth within their professional role. All of the state leaders said they would participate again next year.

“Government tends to be very bureaucratic and mired in 'the way it has always been,'" said one state leader. "Youth tend to ask questions that force government to reconsider if 'the way it has always been' is actually the best way.”

“Well what I discovered was that the people in government, especially in the legislature, are really just regular people trying to serve their communities the best that they can, which definitely gives me confidence that one day I could also pursue a career of public service," said a youth participant.

Engaging youth is about making systems better

As the Iowa Department of Human Rights builds out the structure that connects all its youth engagement activities, leaders of all ages say that the work shows what is possible to improve state systems.

In a discussion about the Talking Wall findings, Deason pointed out the real focus of these efforts:

“It’s about creating a system that actually humanizes the humans it’s supposed to be working for.”

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