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Best Practices to Elevate Youth Voices

Continue celebrating youth voices with MENTOR New York by exploring these best practices to elevate youth voices.

On Thursday, April 15th, Niagara University held a Youth Conference focused on Race and Equity for young people in middle school and high school.

The conference was organized by Niagara University’s Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Race, Equity, and Mission, which works together with faculty and students, and disciplines of study to leverage change in the academy and across sectors of education, business, government, and community.

The Ostapenko Center is run by Dr. Rolanda L. Ward, a macro trained social worker, and research associate on studies focusing on society’s most vulnerable, under-served populations. Dr. Ward works with interns from various backgrounds on an advisory board, including two of the conference organizers, Cora Wright and Jade Goers, who serve as social work interns with the Ostapenko Center while completing their undergraduate studies at Niagara University.


In the past, an organizing committee of interns would pick which topics the conference would focus on, but this year was different. Dr. Ward along with Wright and Goers decided to introduce a Youth Conference Planning Committee, which was made up of four high school students. These students planned everything from start to finish.

In the four years this conference has taken place, this is the first year that youth have been given as much agency in the planning process for the conference.

“It’s been a very difficult year in terms of racial terror and how COVID-19 has impacted Black and Brown populations. For young people, especially young people of color who might be existing in spaces where they feel oppressed, it is important to give them an authentic space where they can discuss the kind of change that needs to happen and gain the skills they need to make it happen,” said Wright.

Cora Wright is sitting on a bench by some water. She is smiling and holding onto her hat.
Cora Wright, Social Work Intern

The Youth Planning Committee was selected by reaching out to the high schools nearby with the request to nominate a student who would rise to the challenge and exhibit leadership skills.

“I would say they [the students] showed enthusiasm from the first email exchange that we had, you could just tell that they were really invested in the project,” said Wright. “They have been very impressive.”

The Youth Planning Committee came up with the content topics for all of the workshops, which included: racism in the media, environmental racism, racism in healthcare and how it impacts Black women. The workshops are then designed by Niagara University graduate and undergraduate students to inspire the high school and middle school students who attend the conference to engage and learn new skills.

The process to elevate youth voices cultivated by Wright and Goers is an example we can all look to for best practices.


Throughout the process of planning the conference. Wright and Goers used these practices to create a space where the youth committee members felt empowered to voice opinions and take the lead.

Create A Comfortable Space

It was important to get the Youth Planning Committee comfortable in order to open up, share and discuss. Goers and Wright said that they tried to create a professional and formal space, but focused on where these young people are in life and found ways to relate to them. The dynamics should be built to meet them where they are.

Start By Building Relationships

They met a few times getting to know each other and asked formal and silly icebreakers before opening up the discussion for brainstorming. Wright and Goers shared information about themselves and answered the same icebreakers as the youth committee in order to make them comfortable to share. Modeling vulnerability and sharing pieces of ourselves can create safe and welcoming spaces for young people to bring their whole selves.

Share Power

Wright shared that she was nervous finding the right balance of sharing and holding herself back, because she did not want to be the adult that was speaking over the youth voices. They wanted to create a space for the students where they felt a sense of agency. After meetings, Goers and Wright would check in with each other to make sure that the youth were taking the lead and elevating their voices. Allowing them to drive the conversations helps them build experience and confidence taking on leadership roles.

“It was balancing education and moving things forward without overstepping,” said Wright.

Be Comfortable With Silence

Jade shared that it was really difficult to just sit in the discussions silently and just listen, because there would be moments of silence and it was difficult not to jump in and offer ideas or solutions. However, the silence was a key element to allow the Youth Planning Committee to sit in and brainstorm ideas. It’s important to remember to focus on developing their skills and not just getting to decisions quickly.


“The end goal of the youth conference is to have students leave with these skills and different ideas of how they can advocate for racial issues and things that they can do within their own schools and how they can make a positive change,” said Jade.

Jade Goers is standing in a room smiling for a selfie.
Jade Goers, a Social Work intern

During the plenary, Mathews said, “Being a leader is a new and different experience for me, but it helps me develop as myself rather than a player on the team.”

He said that since becoming more comfortable being himself he is able to take charge and be confident in taking the leadership role.

As the mentors, program leaders, and other caring adults that support young people, there is a continued need to create space for young people to lead and build upon the best practices that amplify youth voice.

Wright reminds us, “It’s important to give students the respect they need and treat them like the change makers that they are today, rather than future changemakers.”

Learn more about how you can implement best practices to elevate youth voice into your work. Visit MENTOR New York’s website for more information.


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