Youth Driven Spaces: 4 Simple Ingredients to our “Secret Sauce”

Lazy, obnoxious, incompetent, disinterested – these are some of the traditional stereotypes that drive how adults interact with or consider youth.   Because of these beliefs, youth are rarely invited in as partners, co-creators or leaders into the spaces they frequent. In their families, parents rarely allow children to be a part of important decisions even though they may be major stakeholders. In a majority of schools, youth are led through a narrow path of achievement, with little choice or voice and as a result little investment.   In after school programs, adults lead and facilitate programs for youth, but seldom with youth. And in our broader community, youth are rarely asked to play a role in solving our most acute civic, health or equity challenges even though these areas disproportionately impact them.

sauceAs adults, we wonder why our youth fail to meet our expectations or ideals; and yet too often we miss the opportunity to support them to rise as contributors or leaders in their most frequented environments. We miss critical opportunities to build youth confidence and support them to develop self efficacy, agency and to thrive. For even though we don’t mean it, we create systems that squash youths’ healthy development and success.   We create the conditions which feed youth disinvestment and uphold the negative stereotypes society has about them. As a society we erode the practice necessary for youth to be or become democratic citizens.

What would happen if adults embraced a different approach to support their everyday interactions with youth?   What would happen if we invited youth to have a real voice in the places they inhabit including family, school, and the community at large? What other skills could we foster in youth through a new approach to their education, out of school time programming and civic participation? How would our society change if youth were considered competent and engaged community contributors and leaders?  

Ingredients to Neutral Zone’s Youth Driven Spaces Secret Sauce

For the past seven years the Neutral Zone has developed and disseminated its unique Youth-Driven Spaces (YDS) approach to a diverse range of settings that serve older youth including community-based centers, libraries, adolescent health centers, municipal groups, high schools and human service organizations.  YDS is based on a simple innovation—involving youth in meaningful roles running their own programs and serving the organizations that uphold those programs.   A “youth driven space” is an environment in which teens are involved in program and organizational decisions. In a youth driven space, adults provide opportunities for youth to lead activities, to establish and run advisory boards, and to be involved in organizational decisions, policy making and governance.

In reflecting on the YDS framework, we believe 4 “ingredients” drive our success. Our secret sauce includes:

  1. Tapping youth intrinsic motivation. Everyone is motivated by things that interest them, that they enjoy, that taps their curiosity and that provides control over how, when and what they do.   This is especially true for teens, who spend too much of their day in school participating in learning that seems to have no meaning or relevance. Youth engagement, competence and confidence flourish when young people have an opportunity to act on their interests, ideas and passions.   This is true in school, in out-of-school programs, in families and in the broader community.
  1. Supporting youth developmental needs. In early childhood, educators and care givers pay great deference to children’s development and developmental needs, creating environments and opportunities that nurture healthy social, emotional, psychological and cognitive growth. As youth move into adolescence, less and less attention is paid to this important construct. Supporting teens’ developmental needs occurs by building their competence and achievement through working collaboratively and actively in areas driven by their intrinsic interests. These experiences provide youth plentiful opportunities to explore who they are and what they are becoming (a critical element of adolescent social and emotional development) by encouraging them to act on their interests to discover their talents and abilities. In a developmentally supportive environment adults support youth to reflect on themselves and their processes, helping them develop their attitudes, values, and identity.
  1. Partner with youth. In successful, youth-driven programs teens work in partnership with adults. Their partnership emphasizes mutuality among youth and adults, with a focus on shared creating, leading and learning. Within this principle, adults need to have the courage to step back and allow space for youth to lead with their ideas and to serve in ways that adults typically control. The most effective adult supports arise through scaffolding. Simply this means letting young people do as much as they can on their own, and then when they get stuck, to scaffold them by interjecting a question, a suggestion, or helping them connect to a resource.
  1. Embrace a new way of doing business. In a youth driven space reverence is made to youth culture and youth ways of approaching work or learning. This doesn’t mean that accountability, follow through or professionalism isn’t important. It means that teens are in a unique point in their development, and adapting adult practices or culture to meet youth needs and ways of doing things invites them in as valued partners. I once had a colleague, recently retired, who was charged with leading our county youth agency collaborative — which included youth members. She became frustrated that teens were not responding to her emails. I informed her that for many teens email was an outdated form of communication – that they preferred texting or social media. I recommended she accommodate to them as opposed to expecting them to adapt to her. In work, meetings, or learning teens (and everyone!) engage more effectively when it is conducted through facilitated active and collaborative practices and structures, an emerging staple of progressive institutions and the how they conduct their work.


Giving young people voice, choice and decision-making opportunities is critical to support their healthy development and life success. They need to make decisions, act on their intentions and work collaboratively whether it is in school, after-school programs, communities or in their families. Providing these opportunities before they become full adults is critical if we want them to have the best chance at success in their personal, educational, civic and work lives. Moreover, we all benefit by building a civil society whose youth are civically engaged and prepared to be active participants in a democratic society.

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