Historically, young people aged 19-24 have been thought of as uninterested in public policy and advocacy but in recent years younger people have been at the forefront of many social justice movements. Advocates for Youth — a nonprofit that supports young people as they fight for sexual health, rights, and justice— has been particularly successful at activating this group. Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, their Vice President of Policy, Partnerships, & Organizing, joined us during our Quorum Summit to discuss some of their strategies for engaging students and Generation Z.
Leverage Diverse Partnerships
Partner organizations can help you expand your reach if you have similar target audiences. Advocates for Youth often works with college campuses — but they also partner with health clinics and other community organizations to broaden their reach. Not all young people are on college campuses, so these organizations provide another avenue for them to get involved.
Create a Ladder of Engagement
Advocates for Youth offers a wide array of opportunities for young people to get involved with their organization and each one corresponds with one of the three tiers of their ladder of engagement. Creating this framework allows them to think strategically about who they are activating and what will be the most impactful way to engage them.
The first tier includes individuals loosely involved with the organization, such as serving as an ambassador in programs like the Condom Collective, which is sponsored by a partnership with Trojan that provides free condoms to college students. After their application is approved, advocates are sent a box of condoms and are tasked with doing outreach work to ensure their peers have access to free condoms. These students typically use social media and other creative outlets such as fashion shows where students wear garments made out of condoms to get out their message about safer sex. This is the first tier as it requires little interaction between the organization and the student outside of the initial application.
The next tier involves more interaction with young people including signing them up for webinars and email lists or engaging with content on social media. At this stage, they are seeing more content created by Advocates for Youth and they are engaging with the organization on a more consistent basis.
The third and highest tier involves their youth organizing programs and youth leadership council where young people are paired with a staff member who works with them throughout the year to build campaigns in their communities. This core group of individuals receives direct resources, technical assistance, and other support throughout the year. This is the highest tier as these advocates are the most involved with the organization and receive the most resources.
Each program Advocates for Youth has targets a specific level within their ladder of engagement and their goal is to be strategic about where each of these initiatives falls based on the goal.
Listen and Be Authentic
Organizations often want to use young people for bodies, i.e. to attend an event or protest, but oftentimes don’t truly understand their experience. Rhodes knows that “young people are experts on their own lives”: organizations should work alongside their advocates and actually listen to their experiences, not tell them what those experiences are. For example, in 2020, at the request of some advocates and staff, Advocates for Youth shifted some of their programming resources to discuss how to protest safely and to teach about first amendment rights in the wake of the social unrest all across the country. This is a perfect example of how listening to your advocates allows you to have more meaningful engagement.
Advocates for Youth provides stipends or honorariums to young people working closely with them, particularly if they are sharing their stories or creating content. For Rhodes, paying these young people for their work goes along with being authentic as it shows them that you value their time and work.
“Any good advocacy organization knows that you want to meet people where they’re at…I think the key is being authentic with your engagement and your relationships with young people.”