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Back the YAC: Creating a Youth Advisory Council at Solar One

When Solar One, an award-winning green energy education center in NYC, approached the MENTOR New York team, they were seeking new ways to engage with and elevate the next generation of climate leaders. The nonprofit works with students from over 600 public schools to increase their environmental knowledge, foster sustainable behaviors, and inspire young people to create innovative solutions to today’s environmental challenges.

How could they provide a space for youth to voice their ideas and share what they want to see going forward? How could young people be more involved in the development of programming, assist with projects, or even create their own campaigns?

Harnessing the power of their small but mighty group of summer interns, one solution was clear: create a youth-led advisory initiative. Interns Khadija Alami, Sara Poon, Ambrose McLeod, and Wasif Khan were quick to rise to the challenge. Together, the group developed the framework for Solar One’s first Youth Advisory Council — or, as they call it, “the YAC.”

Top left to bottom right: Isabel Avina (Solar One staff), Wasif Khan, Ambrose McLeod, Khadija Alami, Sara Poon, and Karen Alsen.

Finding What Works

Before building something new, the team looked to the past and present for inspiration. Erica Friedman-Coburn, Technical Assistance Provider at MENTOR NY, guided them toward research on youth-led organizations, and the interns set about analyzing data, conducting interviews with those in the field, and deciding what would (and wouldn’t) work for their council.

“We kind of got a really honest and transparent [look] at the challenges that come,” Sara explains. “With Erica being at our meetings, it was also a lot of discussion and advice… How many members should we recruit? How should meetings be run? How do we build culture in our youth group? How do we facilitate certain things.”

Building the Framework

Armed with their research, the group created key components to develop and sustain the council. These included the YAC’s mission and values, community guidelines, member recruitment strategies, and initial onboarding and organizational setup. They also invited Solar One staff members to lead professional development workshops and engage in mentoring YAC members — creating an intergenerational dialogue that places youth at the center.

“It was really important to Solar One members that while we’re doing the planning committee, it’s very youth-led, and that’s another thing we want to transfer onto the actual Youth Advisory Committee: it being youth-led. We want to hear their voices the most,” Khadija said.

Anticipating Roadblocks

One of the challenges the group identified in their research was consistency, Sara notes:

“When the year is done, some people may not come back into our group,” she said. “So how do you keep energy up and that type of consistency within our work and encourage people to come back? Or, make sure that if you start a project, you’re going to see it through?”

The interns outlined a need for team-building activities, quarterly check-in surveys for all YAC members, and a conscientious plan for how and when to contact people who miss meetings or appear to be falling behind. They also planned to reach out to YAC members two months before the program’s completion, to gauge their interest in continuing to work on the council and/or Solar One projects. Their goal is to retain young people who can share their expertise with the next cohort of council members.

From Planning to Fruition

The group finalized the YAC framework as their summer internships drew to a close. Their hard work is now being put into action as Solar One builds and engages with a youth council they hope will empower young people to be the change they want to see in the world.

After a summer of collaborating with their peers, the interns left with positive feelings about their work, the experience, and each other. “Originally I was a bit scared, but after establishing a pattern of Erica giving us resources and then we deliberate and figure something out, it made it more productive,” Khadija explained. “Sometimes it can feel a bit overbearing if someone is like, ‘Do this. Do that.’ Then it’s not youth-led.”

“Whoever picks up where we left off is going to be really fulfilled and equipped with what we worked on,” Wasif added. “And I’m so proud of us as a group.”

For tools, resources, and step-by-step guidance on how you can develop youth-led initiatives within your organization, book a no-cost consultation with a member of the MENTOR NY team today.


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