How Connections Mentoring's Youth Council Is Empowering Mentees “I think young people are afraid to lead because we are always told to stay in a child’s place. A good leader, to me, is someone who is not afraid to speak up, is patient with the people they are working with, and is a great role model.” —Naomi, pioneering member of Connections Mentoring’s Youth Leadership Council (YLC).
In the mentoring field, our missions center on serving young people, but how often do we pause to consider their voices when making important decisions that impact them the most – to step back and let great young leaders like Naomi shine? That's the question Connections Mentoring set out to explore.
Naomi (lower left) with members of Connections Mentoring's Youth Leadership Council.
It starts with sharing power
As an organization with an already strong basis of trust with those they serve, the Connections team wanted to do more to create opportunities for youth agency and leadership.
“We were doing the work. It was going great. We really wanted to include the youth voice. If we are serving this community, we should get feedback from the community, right?” said Carina, Program Manager.
Their vision was to create a small youth board, consisting of 3-5 nominated individuals, who would help identify the intersectional issues affecting young people and work in partnership with those youth to foster solutions. But to tackle societal problems, the YLC and adults in the room needed to be able to have tough conversations.
“Power is huge,” shared Carina. “As adults and people doing the work, we have all the power. We wanted to share that power.”
Specializing in supporting youth engaged in various aspects of the welfare system, the Connections team knew all too well how young people might not have agency in everyday decisions.
“[Creating a leadership council] is important because kids in these programs often feel like they are just getting told what to do without any input on what should be done,” Naomi explains. “Decisions are constantly being made for us, and we are just told what to do without being heard. It is important for these programs to make us feel seen and supported.”
How do you start to tell young people their voice matters? Create intentional spaces for listening and youth empowerment – and take action on their feedback.
Collecting feedback and valuing lived experiences
It was mid-October and the second session of the YLC had just wrapped up. The young members were talking amongst themselves when they got the attention of Chandler, the Youth Engagement Specialist who heads the YLC for Connections. The young board had feedback; they wanted more input into meeting agendas. In just two sessions, Chandler noticed how these young people had opened up in an “empowerment space” and quickly felt comfortable advocating for themselves.
So often young people’s “lived experience has been discounted” and is “not something that’s traditionally featured and not something that’s traditionally valued,” Chandler explains. The YLC is designed to do the opposite. It validates lived experience and tells young people that their story matters. They can be leaders.
As Naomi notes, in working together, the adults and young board members have the potential to further enhance the organization.
“I wanted to be heard and make the program better for future participants,” Naomi said. “I love Connections and my mentor, so I just want to do my part to improve the organization.”
How your organization can follow in Connections' footsteps
Connections worked on their YLC for over a year before young people started meeting in the fall of 2023 – enlisting the help of MENTOR New York’s Erica Friedman-Coburn as a consultant on how to authentically elevate youth voice. "The team at Connections was committed to making the Youth Leadership Council a success. Every meeting I had with them focused on a different way to support their progress in building the YLC,” explained Erica. “We would talk about the challenges they would face, how they could recruit young people, and how they would train and support them.” "You really don’t know how much goes into it until you start planning and working," shared Carina. "Erica brought up so many great points.”
A crucial part of the planning process for Connections was how to make sure young people on the YLC would get compensated for their feedback.
“This is actual work. They are coming here and they are spending time with Chandler, and they are coming up with ideas and enhancing our program,” Carina elaborated. “As a mentoring program, we are now becoming better because of them, and it’s only fair that they get compensated for it.”
What’s next for the YLC
The Connections YLC is just getting started. Next, the young members will have the opportunity to review the organization’s handbook and its three mentor trainings. Carina notes that opening the door to this kind of feedback can be scary.
“It’s stuff [the handbook and trainings] that we have all created as adults working in this industry,” she explains. "We have to allow ourselves to let them give us feedback as well and be okay with it. That’s something that’s important – you’re going to have to be okay with giving up your power.”
Is your organization interested in elevating youth voice? We’re here to support you. Book a free, 30-minute consultation with Erica or another member of our team to get started.
Carina Pena is Program Manager at Connections Mentoring. Her journey at Connections started as a bilingual mentor, volunteering with Latina mentees in New York City.
Chandler Brossard is a Youth Engagement Specialist at Connections, working closely with the Youth Leadership Council. As an Afro-Latina-identifying woman, Chandler is passionate about challenging and opposing unjust systems and institutions.
Erica Friedman Coburn is a Program Engagement Associate at MENTOR New York. Her career has spanned mentoring, higher education, and human resources, where she gained substantial experience with program management and educating young adults.