When we started the Raising Places project, it was obvious that we needed to engage children and youth. However, what was not always clear was how we could do so in a way that truly valued a child’s perspective, without tokenizing them.

While preparing ourselves for the work ahead, we spoke to several thought leaders, a few of them being especially well-versed in the art of engaging children for community development efforts. Again and again we heard that while it is no easy task, engaging children should not be an afterthought or a box to be checked - rather kids should be brought in with as much respect as adults and truly given the power to share insights and be an active part of the process. After all, to do a project about child-centeredness of communities, engaging children directly is critical to know what is really impacting their lives.

“With a lot of kids, of all ages, the stereotype is that they are only focused on themselves, but they aren’t - when asked about their community, they think more about equity and inclusion than most adults. So sometimes, having them involved, even if they can’t see a direct connection of a particular project to their immediate lives, they just bring a perspective that’s helpful.” –Victoria Derr, Raising Places Advisor, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at California State University Monterey Bay

In the research sprint with communities, we offered conveners and design team members a range of research methodologies they could use to engage youth. They then had the flexibility to determine how to engage youth based on their context and capacities. This resulted in much better research outcomes than we could’ve imagined: powerful stories, insights from fresh eyes, and relationships that will hopefully grow beyond the project.

In North Wilkesboro, NC, a group of design team members interviewed youth about their living experiences in their rental home. They also gave younger children two frames for the children to place against things they liked and disliked about their home, green indicating "like" and red marking "dislike." For example, one child held up a red frame against a curtain that was serving as the door to his bedroom. Another child held a green frame up to his mom, saying she was the best thing about their home. And in a third instance, design team members learned about the importance of having homes that are adequate for growing children. While this seems like a pretty obvious insight, it was especially amplified when one of the teens was unable to fully extend his arms upward without hitting the ceiling.

Data points gathered by the North Wilkesboro design team members during during visits with families.

“Part of our research was going to talk to renters. It was a mom and her four sons. All four kids slept in one room, the door was a curtain. Their spirits are down, the house was kind of dark… they didn’t want to invite people in their home.” –Jenn Wages, North Wilkesboro convener, The Health Foundation, Inc.

The Downstreet + State and Columbia community in Hudson, NY has some design team members who specifically engaged a group of Muslim youth in the research sprint by using a mapping exercise to learn about where they typically notice police activity. Because it can be difficult for kids to talk about complex or traumatic experiences, this exercise proved to be particularly useful for the design team.

Conveners Kite's Nest and Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood also put together a Youth Advisory Board to participate in the Ideas Lab, work on concept development and provide feedback to design team members. But rather than just using the Advisory Board as lip service, active measures were taken to make the youth a meaningful part of the team. A workshop was held for the youth to acquaint them to the project and engaged them in similar discussions around challenges and assets in Hudson as the design team. Holding this preliminary session made the integration of the youth into the design team much more seamless and effective. The teens participating in the Youth Advisory Board also receive a stipend and documentation to commend them for their valuable contribution in supporting their community.

Similarly in Wilmington, SBCC Thrive LA convened a feedback session between design team members and youth from the community where young people weighed in on concepts the team began to develop. The feedback session included pizza and snacks to keep the energy going.

“I was surprised that as young as the kids were, they’re talking about mobilizing the community.” –Marcia Tolentino, Wilmington design team

In the South of Market community of San Francisco, 21-year-old Marie Claire Amable is a convener with SOMCAN and an acting design team member. Marie Claire is a leader in her community as she also serves as part of the Youth Commission, a body of youth that advise the Board of Supervisors and Mayor. Not only has she been instrumental in engaging other youth as part of the project, but her lived experience of growing up in the neighborhood has also informed the project teams directly.

“Because I represent children and youth as a commission, I’m always thinking about the impact. In SoMa, there is a lack of open space and youth spend more time indoors than outdoors. A lot of the positive goals I came up with focus on how are we going to create open space that’s close to where young people live. I grew up in this neighborhood–moving back and forth between here and the Tenderloin. I hung out on the streets rather than being inside because when you live in a studio apartment, you don’t wanna be in there. I questioned why certain other neighborhoods have open space that is really nice, their grass is green and they have play structures. Why is that? And that’s how I learned the difference between equity and equality.” –Marie Claire Amable, SoMa convener, SOMCAN

Data point from SoMa design team member Jerome Reyes displaying the salt and sugar exercise.

During research, Mary Claire and fellow design team member Jerome Reyes heavily engaged youth and executed an art project using sugar and salt. Youth were asked to walk with a partner and photo document three very different locations that personally feel unsafe for any reason and photo document the person sprinkling salt in the area. Similarly, spaces that felt safe and carried positive emotions received the sugar treatment.

Stepping back, we see that the communities of Raising Places did not just engage kids in a singular moment of input, but design teams customized and tested multiple methods of engagement, based on the ages of kids, their sensitivities to topic areas, and their availability. Yes, it took more time and more effort, but the realizations were that much more dramatic.

“I didn’t realize there was still a lot of unifying to do in the community… What I was hearing from people is there is still the tension and maybe youth are better positioned than the directors of organizations." –Dyan Ruiz, SoMa design team

While all the childhood perspectives have certainly made Raising Places a much richer and potentially more impactful process, they are prompting us to think about youth engagement, beyond the scope of Raising Places and into community development as a whole. It seems growingly apparent that children need to be a key part of decision making within communities, in a very intentional way. Youth are the ones that will grow to be the adults, and perhaps even the elders in a neighborhood–how much more invested might individuals be knowing that they helped to shape their communities since their childhoods? We are not just engaging kids, we are building social capital for the future!

Learn more ways to amplify the voices of children and youth in creating better communities