Summer is in full swing, and with the change of the seasons, it seems like social mission organizations of every shape and size have welcomed waves of young people into their midst as university and college students dive into their summer jobs.
For the last number of decades, the summer employment rate for full-time university students has hovered around 70 percent. It’s become a right of passage for most post-secondary students to seek out a summer job between semesters in order to gain on-the-ground work experience and help pay for an increasingly expensive education. For the social mission organizations adopting students into their ranks for a term, these young employees offer added capacity in the face of increasingly complex social issues and funding squeezes.
When we think about young people and the future of the social impact sector, it might be tempting to focus solely on leaders like climate change school striker Greta Thunberg or gun control activist Emma González: young people who capture our hearts and imaginations as they battle on the frontlines of social movements. But if we hope to meaningfully address the issues our communities face, as well as offer young people the kind of experience and support they need to thrive, we need to look a little closer to home.
Meaningful youth engagement is not just about supporting exceptional young leaders — it is about recognizing the exceptional potential of every young person. And that can start with recognizing the unique abilities the young people working with our organizations have to offer and ensuring that we fully leverage those abilities. Here’s how to do just that.
Value young people’s unique ability to innovate
Neuroscience and developmental psychology tell us that from 15 to 25, young people’s brains are wired for innovation. During this time of life, young people do not need to be trained to be innovators — they just need to be supported in tapping into their natural abilities.
All social mission organizations need to be flexible and agile to adapt to the rapid pace of change, and young people can offer just the kind of innovative perspectives that an organization needs to adapt. This summer, remember that your young employees are the “innovation engine” of your organization, so get their views, ask for feedback, and involve them in projects that could use a fresh perspective regularly.
Trust young people
Research tells us that young people are more likely to stay engaged with organizations that ensure the work they do meets real needs and where they are given the opportunity to take meaningful action. This summer, don’t give young people make-work projects or tasks that no one else in the organization wants to do.
Instead, leverage your organization’s “innovation engine” by offering young people the opportunity to work on projects where they can be involved from beginning to end and where they have the opportunity to meaningfully connect with your organization’s mission. Trust that young people will step up when given the opportunity to tackle real challenges.
Connect these young innovators with decision-makers
When we connect young people and their bold ideas with decision-makers that have the power to scale and implement these ideas, social and environmental impact is more likely to result. This summer, create opportunities for young employees to amplify their innovative ideas by sharing them with decision-makers at all levels of your organization, and support decision-makers in staying open to the new ideas that young people have to offer.
It is easy to look at young leaders like Thunberg or González from afar and admire the impact they have had. What isn’t as simple is recognizing the exceptional abilities of all young people and meaningfully supporting each young person as they walk through the front door of your organization throughout the year. Young people’s new ideas will often make us feel uncomfortable and push us out of our comfort zone. But this summer, remember that that feeling is precisely how you’ll know that the kind of innovative thinking needed to solve complex problems is taking place.