This story is in partnership with RBC Future Launch.
Young people bring a lot to the table, when it comes to social change.
Throughout history, youth have led movements that have shifted culture, policy, and legislation toward social progress. But institutionalized social impact work looks a bit different — these organizations are often more susceptible to being stuck in outdated ways of working that value age and professional experience over youth voices. Shifting that narrative and valuing the contributions of young people could present major opportunities for social change organizations to fulfill their mandates.
So, Future of Good asked 10 young changemakers who’ve worked to clear hurdles — from our 2021 list of Young Impact Leaders — for one big idea on shifting organizational culture to better support youth leadership.
Always lead with trust
“I believe workplace autonomy, consistent communication, and opportunities for reflection/growth foster strong youth leadership. I have regular supervision within my workplace, which creates space for me to think about the work I have done and the work coming up. Additionally, I can reflect on and talk through ethical tensions I am experiencing, address workplace culture, and create goals that will support my professional development. These factors provide a solid and stable foundation that creates a culture of communication. With communication and reflection/growth built into the organization’s fabric, I can also take concepts/ideas and run with them (within reason, of course). The trust in my skills and experience so early in my career gives me confidence in myself and my work. This set of circumstances made me feel able to take on a leadership role within the community of practice. Being early in my career and inviting seasoned professionals to a table that I am meant to co-lead was intimidating. Having a strong and supportive team to lean on and learn from has only furthered my work to address and prevent the sexual exploitation of youth.” – Amnesty Cornelius, support specialist, Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth, Thrive
Ask for young people’s feedback
“Organizations should provide youth with the opportunity to give feedback and present ideas and suggestions. My workplace is always asking for feedback at staff meetings, through surveys, and other mediums. In fact, my position was created in part by the feedback I presented to my organization about the importance of having a role like mine on the staff. Of course, providing youth with an opportunity is just the starting point. To foster youth leadership, organizations must be willing to support feasible ideas and help youth put their ideas into motion. If an idea or suggestion isn’t possible to implement, taking the time to explain why can provide youth with a powerful learning opportunity. It’s this kind of mentorship that fosters youth leadership.” – Juanita Gnanapragasam, diversity and inclusion advisor, Edmonton Foundation of Community Leagues
Ask youth about their values
“Impact organizations often showcase an inspirational list of values on an office wall or a website, but many don’t take the time to consider how they’re truly living these values internally. But I bet their staff could tell them! Strategies to foster young leadership will be most effective if they are authentic — meaning they align with the external vision for change in the world — and if they provide tangible opportunities for initial entry into the workplace, not just growth within it.” – Lizzie Howells, director, shared platform, MakeWay
Know that there’s no one definition of leadership
“There is a teaching in my community about how we have to always be thinking about the generations that follow us. This concept applies to young people taking on leadership roles in organizations as well. From the moment that someone joins, you have to have a committed understanding that this young person should be enabled to strengthen their skills, to grow their capacity and to enhance their knowledge. Leadership looks different to every person, so make sure you talk to young people about what it means to them, and understand it might not always look like traditional leadership structures. Create space for young people to be meaningfully consulted, to be encouraged to explore and test new ideas and to be safe to speak up. Integrating these voices in decisions will strengthen organizations, and also will ensure that everyone is propelled forward into testing and trying new practices.” – Alyssa Luttenberger, director of impact, development and granting, Canadian Roots Exchange
Challenge definitions of leadership that uphold systems of oppression
“I think we really need to challenge our ideas of ‘traditional’ leadership models, especially as it persists as a form of leadership that upholds white supremacy. We need to release ourselves from these constructs that force perfectionism, and individualism, allow young people to show up as our full selves, leading from a place of joy, rather than driven by fears of precarity and rooted in colonial harm. Instead, leadership should be reframed through investments in meaningful projects and in our communities, allowing us to build more thoughtful lifecycles of decision-making; particularly, how can organizations take up the responsibility of making this space, and building capacity beyond the institutional, and instead, extending relationally with communities? Amongst these questions, it’s key to remember that young people are not a monolithic group, and expecting perfection and replicability sets young leaders up for unsustained success.” – Shalaka Jadhav, design and community manager, Youth Climate Lab
Build authentic mentoring relationships
“I learned that mentorship is important for fostering more young leadership. I had incredible mentorship over the past year that encouraged me to take ownership and pride in my work. Intentional mentorship that fosters an environment that allows young people to ask questions and not ‘fake it ‘til they make it’ helps alleviate the imposter syndrome we all seem to experience at this age.” – Meredith Langille, community coordinator, Social Innovation Fredericton
Let people fail
“It is important to create safety around failing. As new leaders are just getting an understanding of their own leadership style, framework and how this influences the work they do, we need to not only normalize that failure is part of the process, but build environments where it is safe and encouraged to do so. One example to build this that really stood out to me as impactful, simplistic was highlighted in Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s book, Option B. They describe an activity called the Whoopsie moment where each member of the team, starting with the team leader or manager, goes around and talks about their biggest failure since the last meeting. Each member then goes on to vote for the biggest failure, who then receives the Whoopsie until the next meeting. In this way, it helps to normalize talking about failures, learning from them and growing forward.” – Robyn Romano, director of operations, Distress Centre Calgary
Balance creative freedom with support
“Young people are more talented and experienced than we (and sometimes they) realize. Supporting young leadership in teams is all about balancing affording young folks both the freedom to try new things, and the support they need to feel backed up and confident. Leadership looks a million different ways. Young leadership looks a million different ways. More than anything, it’s on us to adapt and enable young leaders in our organizations to thrive.” – Fae Johnstone, executive director, Wisdom2Action
Embrace servant leadership
“I’m a big believer in servant leadership — meaning an organization’s leaders should be serving their employees. When working with youth and trying to foster young leadership, organizations should consider what it means to truly serve and empower their younger staff. This goes beyond just asking, ‘What do you think?’ in meetings or asking them to present a proposal separately — it means sitting down with them and working through a problem together (even if it’s menial, repetitive work — actually, especially if it is!), providing direction when they need support, and stepping back when they are gaining momentum with their ideas.” –Bruno Lam, Senior Investment Associate, TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good
Let youth be the ambassadors
“Often in non-profit organizations, millenials work here not because of the money, but because they care. And they are often pretty vocal to their own networks on why they do what they do — giving them the platform to ‘be the face’ of the organization would empower them to be current and future leaders. I also think providing them opportunities for growth and development beyond their role so that they get “the whole story” of who the organization, the stakeholders and the community is in the context of the bigger picture globally – this allows individuals to go beyond their often limiting roles within an agency and prioritizes them as holistic human beings capable of cross-departmental responsibilities. And it’s great for capacity building.” – Danisha Bhaloo-Shivji, development and communications manager, Boys & Girls Club Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton & Area