By Mina Aslan, Headstream Youth Program Coordinator
The era of convincing professionals to involve youth in their work is slowly coming to an end. People from all fields, from healthcare to education all the way to tech design, understand that in order to build for young people, youth must be involved in the design process. However, now that the “why” has been established, the “how” is a more critical piece. At Headstream, we have asked ourselves the same question for almost two years. Headstream is an initiative, powered by SecondMuse, that seeks to accelerate startups creating social technology designed to support youth wellbeing. As Headstream’s Youth Program Coordinator, my team and I had the joy of designing, launching, and executing the Youth 2 Innovator (Y2I) Program, a virtual experience for teenagers across the United States to work with a social impact startup around youth wellbeing on digital platforms while building out their own social technology project around teen wellbeing. From outreaching to young people all the way to building a strong community of empowered youth, Headstream’s key learnings when working with youth have now become the foundation for all of our youth programming. Join us in designing an amazing youth experience that will truly set your program apart!
Start with Socials
When kicking off outreach for our Youth 2 Innovator program, we reached out to about 100 youth organizations, several schools, and inserted ourselves into as many graduating high school Facebook and Slack groups as possible. It wasn’t until we took our outreach to Instagram & TikTok when application numbers skyrocketed to almost 100. I wanted to be able to show and explain the value of our program to youth directly and in the digital places they consume most. I started by directly messaging pages that had similar rhetoric as Headstream’s (youth, wellbeing, social tech, Gen Z, etc). I then started looking up youth platforms for queer youth, BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) & POC (People of Color, i.e. Asian, Middle Eastern, Latinx, etc). youth, and Gen Z girls. Before I knew it, I went down a rabbit hole of messaging 50+ Instagram pages that shared our opportunity on their stories (a feature that allows you to share content up to 24 hours). It all came from knowing where youth spend their time and meeting them where they’re at. Here are some quick tips on how to conduct social media outreach on Instagram for youth opportunities!
- Search for keywords similar to your work.
- For example, you want to find youth to participate in research around queer teen wellbeing. Look up keywords like “LGBTQ” “teens” “wellbeing” “mental health”
- Read their bios and scan their page to see if their values align with yours.
- Message that page a personalized blurb about your opportunity, why you want to share it specifically with them and their network, and ask for them to share it on their platform.
- On their page, hit the downward arrow button under the followers button to find similar organizations to them.
When commencing this program, there were certain truths about teen wellbeing and digital spaces that Headstream had to internalize. In the design of such digital spaces, Headstream has learned from both our entrepreneurs and our young people not only what they want to see on social technology, but what they truly need for the youth empowerment recipe for wellness:
- Agency: Youth wellbeing is directly tied to young people’s agency to transform the societies in which they live, so in order to uplift youth wellness, digital spaces must also be a place for youth to creatively and proactively address the injustices impeding on their prosperity.
- Action: Provide tasks/activities/projects of substance that allow them to contribute to the big picture.
- Creativity: Youth are so creative and long for that creativity to be used for a greater purpose. Whether that is for empowerment, awareness, or just for the sake of their wellbeing, they need spaces where they can manifest that in whatever opportunity they embark on.
- Action: Encourage and promote creativity within a given task or responsibility in order to benefit your overall work. Creative energy is derived when those insights will be used for a greater purpose.
- Intersectionality: Youth come from different backgrounds and identities that require those who work with them to approach them with an intersectional framework. This starts with holding space to listen and learn from the experiences of youth and validating those experiences to be true and to inform collective learning.
- Action: Listen to the realities of the youth you are working with. If you are working on a research project, ask how their gender identity, their sexuality, their racial identity, their ethinic background, and/or nationality influence their thinking. Speaking from an intersectional mindset also allows you to design experiences that include these different realities.
- Connection & Community: Like most human beings, youth need other youth. But what makes a community within a program strong is a common anchor. For Headstream, our anchor that ties all of our members together is our dedication to transforming the way technology empowers youth wellness.
- Action: Create hangout spaces! Youth need to develop a genuine personal connection with you and their peers in order for the programmatic environment to prosper.
- Learning Skills: Youth crave for education that will propel them further in life. It is the core of empowerment. Youth need to have access to practical and emotional/social skills that can help them continue to build out their purpose.
- Action: When you provide a task/project/community for a teen, be sure you can name the learnings that will come out of that endeavor. If the task is to lead research on mental health of queer youth, your teen can learn how to conduct a focus group, research methodologies, synthesizing and analyzing data, etc.
- Support: There are two kinds of support that are critical for youth, emotional and practical. Emotionally, young people are going through a lot, especially during this time. They need consistency in their scheduling, in the expectations requested of them, even in the way they are spoken to. However, the truest form of support comes from genuine care expressed through 1:1 check ins and simple messaging. With many of our youth, we broke down traditional binaries around “professionalism” to simply ask how our teen was truly feeling.
- Action: Provide consistent professional touch points and create spaces for personalized touch points.
Mentorship: A Two Way Street
Every opportunity that involves youth has the potential for mentorship and it is imperative to tap into this potential.. As a part of the Youth 2 Innovator Program, our cohort of teens were paired with an innovator to not only advise their innovation, but to be mentored by them. Youth Advisor Madison Ramos advised Headstream Innovation, Novelly, and shared through her experience working with Novelly the myriad of ways mentorship can be manifested and the profound impact it has on the wellbeing of youth.
“It’s unbelievably rewarding to be able to draw from your own experiences to help the development of a youth-targeted innovation.” Madison continues, “After working with the team, I really couldn’t be happier. Not only have I been able to learn so much about the inner-workings of growing startups, but I have watched as my feedback and insight inspires positive change. Moreover, I’ve realized that the relationships you form as an advisor are incredible. After meeting with Anna, Novelly’s founder, we discussed what excited me about Novelly and brainstormed how I could contribute to the team. From this meeting, I joined the team as a Content Intern, and I’m currently continuing in this role! I’ve been able to make my own contributions, and playing a part in the progression of such an amazing nonprofit has been truly exhilarating.”
Mentorship comes from truly believing in the capacity of the youth you work with by giving them the space to contribute to your work and applying it. The ability to build authentic and genuine spaces starts with entering those spaces as your authentic selves. It’s much simpler than people often lead on, but it truly starts with breaking down binaries around adults and youth.
Retention: Building Love & Loyalty through Accountability
Along with presenting your authentic self, discipline does go hand in hand. But here’s the thing: young people respect you more when you hold them accountable. In fact, they need accountability to become better individuals. What builds the love and loyalty in the tough disciplinarian moments is if you are holding them accountable because it benefits them, not you. The moment you see a lack of participation or consistent absences, reach out to the individual youth asking if they are okay. Show them that you care about them as a person and arrange a 1:1 meeting where you can learn more about the root causes behind their behavior. With a kind and genuine composure, lay out the responsibilities they have committed to and how it doesn’t need to be an added stressor, but that they have a support system available to them to help them complete the tasks before them.
I admit, as someone who has worked with youth for 7+ years, it isn’t easy to sustain a caring relationship with teenagers while also disciplining them. However, if accountability measures are framed out of a place of love and a desire to personally and professionally build the capacity of the youth you work with, they will be receptive to that. They will feel loyal because you will be an adult who doesn’t allow them to be complacent and facilitates their growth. And suddenly, they feel your love and loyalty as a mentor and pay it right back to you.
If you are interested in learning more about Headstream’s Youth Programming and want to find out ways to get involved, please email Headstream’s Youth Program Coordinator, Mina Aslan, at email@example.com.