Barriers to Building Effective Youth-Adult Partnerships Print

Transitions: The Rights. Respect. Responsibility.® Campaign
Volume 14, No. 1, October 2001

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Kent Klindera, Director, International Division, Jennifer Menderweld, Intern, and Jane Norman, Program Manager, Youth Empowerment Initiatives, Advocates for Youth

Why aren't more organizations leaping to establish youth-adult partnerships?

The fact is that adults, youth, and organizations must recognize and dismantle significant barriers to working across age differences. If barriers remain in place, they will undermine the best intentions and waylay even the best-laid plans.

Attitudes as Barriers

Many adults still believe that young people's opinions don't matter, that youth are not capable of contributing in a valuable way, and that adults have nothing to learn from youth. Moreover, cultural norms may prevent adults from even realizing that these attitudes are biased. One way of approaching the issue of changing adults' attitudes about youth is to deal with it as one would any other issue of cultural diversity. Firsthand, personal experience often provides the most effective and far-reaching results in terms of changing people's opinions. One of the benefits of involving young people at high levels of responsibility and decision making is that it enables adults to see teens as thoughtful and contributing people. When anyone comes to see a formerly undifferentiated group as varying and diverse, that person is much more open to disbelieving and refuting negative stereotypes about the group and to valuing the individuals within the group.

Power dynamics, usually rooted in cultural norms, may make it difficult for young people and adults to feel comfortable working together. Formal instruction in school often teaches youth to expect answers from adults, and youth may expect adults to ignore, deride, or veto their ideas. Adults frequently underestimate the knowledge and creativity of young people and may be accustomed to making decisions without input from youth, even when youth are directly affected by the decisions. Therefore, joint efforts toward solving problems can be difficult, requiring deliberate effort on the part of both adults and youth.

One researcher developed the Spectrum of Attitudes theory and identified three different attitudes that adults may hold toward youth.1 These attitudes affect adults' ability to believe that young people can make good decisions. These attitudes also determine the extent to which adults will be willing to involve young people as significant partners in decisions about program design, development, implementation, and evaluation.

  • Youth as Objects—Adults who have this attitude believe in a myth of adult wisdom. They believe adults know what is best for young people. They attempt to control situations involving youth and believe that young people have little to contribute. They may feel the need, based on prior experience, to protect youth from suffering the consequences of potential mistakes. Adults who see youth as objects seldom permit youth more than token involvement. An example of this attitude might be an adult writing a letter to an elected official about an issue pertinent to youth and using a young person's name and signature for impact.
  • Youth as Recipients—Adults who have this attitude believe they must assist youth to adapt to adult society. They permit young people to take part in making decisions because they think the experience will be 'good for them.' They assume that youth are not yet 'real people' and need practice to learn to 'think like adults.' These adults usually delegate to young people trivial responsibilities and tasks that the adults do not want to undertake. Adults who see youth as recipients usually dictate the terms of youth's involvement and expect young people to adhere to those terms. An example of this attitude might be adults extending an invitation to one young person to join a board of directors otherwise comprised solely of adults. In such a milieu, a young person's voice is seldom raised and little heard. Adults do not expect the young person to contribute, and the young person knows it and that adults deliberately retain all power and control.
  • Youth as Partners—Adults who have this attitude respect young people and believe that young people have significant contributions to make now. These adults encourage youth to become involved and firmly believe that youth's involvement is critical to a program's success. They accept youth's having an equal voice in decisions. They recognize that both youth and adults have abilities, strengths, and experience to contribute. Adults who have this attitude will be as comfortable working with youth as with adults and enjoy an environment with both youth and adults. Adults who see youth as partners believe that genuine participation by young people enriches adults just as adults' participation enriches youth and that a mutually respectful relationship recognizes the strengths that each offers. One example might be hiring youth to participate from the beginning in designing a program to meet the needs of a community's youth.

Logistical and Organization Barriers

Good intentions are not enough to create genuine partnerships. Adults who endorse the concept of youth-adult partnerships must also be willing to identify and alter the organizational environment where institutional barriers can be especially significant for young people. Institutional barriers that make genuine youth-adult partnerships difficult include:

  • Hours for Meetings and Work—An agency's hours of operation usually coincide with times when young people are at school or work. To engage youth, program planners must find nontraditional times at which to hold important meetings. Often, scheduling conflicts can be difficult to overcome. However, compromise is vital if an organization is to create youth-adult partnership. For adults, this may mean altering schedules to hold meetings in the late afternoon, early evening, or on the weekend. For youth, this may mean using school community service hours to attend a daytime meeting.
  • Transportation—Many young people do not have assured access to a vehicle. Program planners should schedule meetings in easily accessible locations. They should also provide youth with travel vouchers and/or immediate reimbursement for the cost of travel.
  • Food—Few young people have the income to purchase meals in business districts or dinners in restaurants. When a meeting occurs at mealtime, the organization should provide young people with food or with sufficient funds to pay for the meal.
  • Equipment and Support—Agencies should provide youth with the same equipment as other employees, such as computer workstation, mailbox, voice mail, E-mail, and business cards. Failure to do so carries a powerful message that these youth—whether they are volunteers, interns, or peer educators, full-time or part-time—are not important or, at least, are not as important as adult employees.
  • Procedures and Policies—With input from both youth and adults, organizations should develop policies on youth/adult interactions. For example, if a program involves overnight travel, youth and adults should be clear about their roles and responsibilities in traveling together. The policies will need to respect youth's desire for independence and, at the same time, address the legal liability of the organization, the comfort level and legal responsibilities of adult staff, and parental concerns about security. Organizations may consider establishing policies requiring the consent of parent or guardian for youth's participation, for staff's driving young people somewhere, etc. The setting and purpose of each youth-adult partnership will help determine other institutional factors that may need to be addressed in the organization's policies and procedures.
  • Training—In agencies that have always operated from an exclusively adult perspective, staff may need cultural competency training. Staff—whether working directly with youth or not—will need to accept young people's perspectives and ideas and adapt to changing workplace rules to meet the needs of youth. Each organization and each staff member must make determined efforts to let each young person know he/she is valued.

It is work to achieve youth-adult partnership, and it is not easy work. However, the benefits are enormous for youth and for organizations that care about young people. When youth and adults keep the potential benefits in mind, they will find that the work is worthwhile. It may even turn our to be easier than they thought it would be. 

This article is drawn, in part, from Klindera K and Menderweld J. Youth Involvement in Prevention Programming. [Issues at a Glance]. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth, © 2001.


  1. National 4-H Council. Creating Youth/Adult Partnerships: The Training Curricula for Youth, Adults, and Youth/Adult Teams. Chevy Chase, MD: The Council, 1997.

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Transitions (ISSN 1097-1254) © 2001, is a quarterly publication of Advocates for Youth—Helping young people make safe and responsible decisions about sex. For permission to reprint, contact Transitions' editor at 202.419.3420.

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