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What is Youth Organizing? FYA’s Anna Gennari breaks it down

Posted on April 11, 2018

Foster Youth in Action has embraced Youth Organizing as our engagement strategy.  Matt Rosen sat down with Anna Gennari, Director of Programs at FYA, to hear her perspective on this unique and effective approach. 

Matt: What is youth organizing, and how long has it been around?

Anna: Youth organizing is about people power, community, & collective action for change. It is young people with shared experiences building their power and raising up new leaders, and taking targeted action to create systemic change that directly impacts their lives and future generations to come.

Hard to say how long youth organizing has been around, but I am certain that youth power and resistance has been around long before it was officially written down and documented. I can say that youth organizing is a part of a long legacy of collective action led by young people – from the civil rights movement where young people led collective boycotts, sit-ins, and organized marches – to Queer resistance and Black Liberation led by young people today.

In the past 20 years, there has also been an incredible shift from a problem-centered or deficit-based youth development approach to strategies that really emphasize the assets and developmental opportunities for young people based on a positive youth development framework… This foundation has been a jump-off for making the case for youth engagement strategies like youth leadership, civic engagement, and youth organizing.

M: Why is youth organizing a great fit for engaging current and former foster youth in changing the child welfare system?

A: Youth organizing harnesses the power and agency of young folks. These are things that are often taken from young people when they enter the system. In the system, youth are isolated, have limited opportunity to make decisions about their own life, and are often fighting for survival daily, which makes it hard to re-imagine the next few steps ahead. Youth organizing doesn’t give power, but it helps to unlock the power of young people and creates a place where they can critically analyze the systems that impact them and how to use their power to create changes in these systems. 

Youth organizing brings young people together. It forges bonds, builds trust, creates a community of natural supports and social capital, connects young people with older generations, AND creates real and lasting change.  All of these things are healing and transformative.

M: Youth organizing has been a prominent youth engagement strategy in Juvenile Justice. Why don’t we see as many groups using organizing as a strategy in child welfare?

A: There is no one reason that youth organizing is less prevalent as a strategy for youth engagement in the child welfare system. In the past decade, there has been significant investment in engaging young people in decision-making and advocacy efforts particularly using youth-adult partnerships as a strategy for engaging youth in care. This has been a great foundation and has helped to greatly shift the culture around youth engagement in the foster care system – but it often stops there. Organizing young people to lead the work to recruit and engage other young people, identify key issues that may not be a priority of host organizations that are often acting as fiscal sponsors or otherwise supporting young people. Also taking direct action at the local level to hold systems accountable – can be hard and complicated work.  These groups often lack a concrete framework that easily guides and supports the work at each turn. While there are opportunities for individual advocacy, I’d say there is still more that needs to be done to shift the culture of engagement to a collective community-based strategy like organizing. Organizing and collective action takes time to build and the framework is as important as the action. Groups trying to engage foster youth don’t always have the capacity, understanding, or time to build the membership structure that sustains youth-led organizing work. 

New Mexico Youth Leaders prepping for the Leaders for Change Rally in DC, October 2017

Youth organizing is also about challenging the status quo, shifting power, and truly changing systems. This can be scary for child welfare systems and other organizations. It can also be scary for young people who may feel their safety and permanence may be threatened if they rise up against the system.  Some organizations may be funded by the same system they are working to change and feel scared they won’t be able to continue the work or their own jobs may even be at stake. Combine this with not having the tools or capacity to shift to a youth organizing approach – I think it is a very real challenge for groups.

M: How is FYA working to increase the organizing capacity of young leaders in our network?

A: This year, during our 10th year anniversary, we are really striving to bring things “home” – this means focusing more deeply on local training, capacity building, and action – and coming back to our foundation set 10 years ago that young people with the lived experience in foster care are leading this work. We have been talking with our partners, doing extensive evaluation, and listening to our community to really help refine our work into 3 key strategies: 1) training and equipping young people with the tools to organize their peers, identify their priority issues, and take action; 2) building the local capacity of groups by providing a youth organizing framework that supports and sustains their work well beyond our support; and 3) building a national community of change agents across the country who can connect, share strategies, and build a movement together. We are so excited about how we are moving forward on all these strategies and I can’t wait to see how it turns out!