Young people are shouldering the weight of the world. How do we help them lead now and become effective leaders in the future?

These are the questions that youth leadership coaches, trainers and administrators wrestle with every day.

“We see an urgent need to support young people around the world in their leadership roles,” says Ellen Van Velsor, CCL Senior Fellow. “Youth can and do enact leadership outside of formal leader roles. How do we foster that, strengthen their identity as leaders, and help them gain skills they need now and as they look toward an uncertain future?”

Earlier this year, 24 youth leadership practitioners from 16 organizations gathered at the CCL headquarters in Greensboro, NC, to imagine the future for youth leadership development. During the two-and-a-half-day Youth Leadership Summit, the group identified and discussed challenges, explored future scenarios and established working groups to find solutions and pursue goals.

The summit participants delved into a number of key themes, including:

How can we tailor leadership development for different ages and stages? Youth leadership development would be improved by a more consistent and well-informed use of a developmental continuum, defining differences in what leadership looks like at different ages. Creating a “map” of leadership skills that are important and developing how those should look at different ages would be a huge leap forward, as would measuring and comparing outcomes of various programs and approaches across this continuum. In working with youth, we need to be using the cognitive leadership frames of specific age groups, rather than trying to use/explain adult frameworks.

How can we measure the impact of youth leadership development? What are the outcomes and benefits? What makes a successful youth leadership program or experience? What impact results from leadership opportunities, programmatic initiatives or mentoring, for example? What are short-term results and the impact over time? High-quality evaluation is needed to articulate outcomes. Strong outcomes will focus future work, engage more participants and funders, and produce more results for youth worldwide.

How can we engage educators in conversations about what youth leadership development can offer to the mutual goal of “whole child” development? There is evidence that youth leadership development has a positive impact on academic progress. We need to do more to collect these studies, communicate them to a broad audience of educators through newsletters, publications and presentations, and look at our own programs from this perspective. This would open doors for weaving leadership development into school curricula through funding of teacher training, tools and support.

How can we include youth voice and presence in youth leadership development? Young people should be in on the discussion about the how and what of their leadership development. Ideas included inviting youth to participate in future summits and planning; partnering with youth through technology innovations; and creating two-way mentoring opportunities for youth and adults.

How do we support youth leadership development where it’s taking place? One of the most frequent contexts for youth leadership is as part of civic engagement and service-learning opportunities. How can the youth leadership development community expand and enhance the impact of these leadership experiences? Can we get beyond a “program” framework?

“These questions are important to all of us — not just to leadership development professionals,” says Van Velsor. “As business leaders, educators, community members, parents and grandparents, we need to invest in children and young people.”

“The first step is to not take leadership away from youth at any age,” she continues. “What can you do today that gives them opportunities to lead, learn and grow?”

What if …?

What will the future hold and how will young people learn to lead? Participants in the Youth Leadership Summit 2011 spent some time in a wide-ranging discussion around future scenarios and possibilities.

One activity involving asking “What if …” questions, including:

  • What if youth leadership development became part of the education system?
  • What if the online power of youth toppled everything — how would that change our work as practitioners?
  • What if we had true collaboration with youth?
  • What if we stopped acting as if the online world is a separate and not “real” world?
  • What if we had a community “map” and didn’t duplicate efforts across youth-serving organizations?
  • What if there were extensive collaborations between youth leadership development practitioners and the corporate sector?
  • What if our summits included corporate representatives, educators, youth and funders?
  • What if we had longitudinal and comparative evaluation data?

Interested in sponsoring or participating in the next Youth Leadership Summit? Contact Ellen Van Velsor.

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