Placing youth at the center when developing programs, policies and strategies that affect them can be a key to success, according to presenters at a Sunday APHA Annual Meeting session on “Youth-Powered Health: Making Meaningful Youth Engagement Part of Your Adolescent Health Program.”

“(Youth) want to have opportunities to create and run their own projects,” said Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It’s important to make the distinction between giving youth token roles as advisers or board members, which give them a limited role in program design and execution, and providing them with meaningful roles. Young people know the difference.” 

teen girls and boys at ice rink

During the session, colleagues from HHS’ Office of Population Affairs walked attendees through a recorded 45-minute youth listening session and then modeled how to use the adolescents’ comments to create meaningful programs. 

OPA began designing a youth listening project in 2017, partnering with 13 of its Teen Pregnancy Prevention program grantees. The aim was to test and identify promising strategies for soliciting and incorporating youth voices into health programs. The culmination was the creation of the free Listen Up! Youth Listening Session Toolkit, which includes 18 ready-to-use templates, forms and sample documents. 

During Sunday’s session, the online chat function allowed attendees to share observations about the youth listening session moderator, Jevon Gibson, and eight teenage participants from Georgia and Texas. Attendees were impressed with how enthusiastic, funny and engaging the moderator was. They pointed out that he truly listened and interacted with each teenager and tried to relate to them by first asking an easy icebreaker question: What is your favorite food and favorite song?

The primary question during the youth listening session, which was held via online video during the pandemic, was “What matters to you most when it comes to your health and your community?” APHA session attendees said they were surprised at how many of the teenagers talked about mental health in their communities. In fact, many of the teens’ comments were focused on keeping their families and communities safe. However, they also said that adults often misunderstand them or don’t listen to them.

After watching the youth listening session recording, Elizabeth Laferriere, an OPA public health analyst, walked attendees through a six-step process of how to use information gathered in a youth listening session. 

The steps:

1. Map — ask the people on your team to spend about 20 minutes writing on sticky notes what they heard and witnessed. What did the teenagers say, think, feel and do? Then, have everyone put their sticky notes on a large whiteboard in one of four quadrants (say, think, feel and do). (This can be done virtually with online whiteboards.) 

2. Cluster — Organize similar sticky notes together and give each cluster an insight, such as “mental health is a priority for youth.” 

3. Reframe — Reframe each insight into “How might we …” statements and vote on the ones you want to work on. “’How might we’ statements are expansive and they are optimistic,” Laferriere said. “They don’t limit your thinking to a single solution because you want everyone firing on all cylinders, thinking about all possibilities for how you might reach this goal.”

4. Dream — Brainstorm endless possibilities that address the “How might we …” statements. Do this individually at first and then paste everyone’s sticky notes on a whiteboard. 

5. Prioritize — Draw a grid with “high impact” at the top, “low impact” at the bottom, “hard” on the left and “easy” on the right. Place the “dream” sticky notes in the appropriate areas. 

6. Act — Time to create an action plan! 

“Action planning is not just important because of the basic project management aspect of it,” Laferriere said. “It’s important because it’s a physical manifestation to your young people that you value their expertise and are taking it seriously.”

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