Two youth, seated behind a table with microphones on a stage, speak at the 2022 Youth-Nex conference.

Q&A: When Supporting Teens Means Getting Out of the Way

Leaders at Youth-Nex are fulfilling the commitment they made to create more youth-led opportunities, including a youth summit which will take place in late April.

Audrey Breen

At their 2022 national conference, Youth-Nex researchers committed to helping create opportunities for youth to lead. Envisioned and brought to life by the Youth-Nex Youth Advisory Council, the inaugural Charlottesville Teen Summit for 9th through 12th graders will take place later this month.

Focused on the theme of elevating youth voices, the 2022 University of Virginia Youth-Nex conference gathered youth, educators, youth workers, researchers, and policymakers and encouraged attendees to commit to taking action to support youth voice and agency. Youth-Nex committed to supporting the Youth Advisory Council, a group of local area high school students, to provide youth with a platform to use their voices and develop their sense of agency through research. 

Sherry Bryant, program and outreach associate, and Abby Gillespie, director of strategy and engagement, are helping fulfill the Youth Advisory Council’s vision by supporting them as they launch their inaugural summit on Saturday, April 27.

“This is the first Charlottesville Teen Summit that the Youth-Nex Youth Advisory Council will be hosting,” Gillespie said. “Building from Youth-Nex’s years of experience hosting national conferences, we are excited to host a local event that is exclusively by teens and for teens.”

We reached out to Bryant and Gillespie to learn more about why it is important for adults to support teens as they use their voice and how best to do it. 

Q. Why is it important to ensure youth have a platform to use their own voices? 

Bryant: So many reasons! Chief among them for me are those rooted in empowerment and equity. By ensuring that youth have a platform, it empowers them to have more self-confidence and to actively participate in shaping the communities that they live in. 

Also, youth make up a significant portion of the population, so representation is an important factor to consider here, too. Their perspectives, which are so often fresh and insightful, are imperative for driving truly inclusive decision-making processes. Fostering youth voice is a matter of justice and equity.

Abby Gillespie
Abby Gillespie
Q. How can adults best step back and give teens more of a leading voice?  

Gillespie: Youth voice is the idea that young people are able to freely express themselves, be heard, and actively lead and drive change and innovation in their communities. Teens bring with them incredible knowledge, experiences, and perspectives. There is much to learn by listening to youth, and importantly, responding to and empowering youth in their vision and ideas. 

Here are some considerations for adults as they step back and give teens a leading voice:

  • Respect a young person’s interests, passions, and experiences. It is important that adults recognize a teen’s lived experiences, show interest in their lives, and trust their judgment. Take the time to understand the situations and emotions of youth, truly putting yourself in the mindset of listening first and learning.
  • Foster meaningful dialogue. Be sure to cultivate open and honest communication between teens and adults, encouraging teens to express their opinions, ideas, and preferences. Furthermore, create a space where people can listen, challenge, and learn from one another, including a space that values diverse perspectives. 
  • Share power. Per the Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework, it is important to share power in relationships with youth, treating youth with respect and giving them a say. Empower teens to take action and lead, involving teens in decisions that affect them.
Q. What are we at risk of missing if we don’t elevate youth voices? 

Gillespie: I often find in my work in education and youth development that the most impactful solutions are the ones generated by youth, whether thinking about school design, an afterschool program, or a new research project. Yet, as adults, we too often think of asking youth for their input not soon enough! 

Youth experiences and perspectives lead to creative solutions to complex problems that adults often overlook. I would encourage adults to start by asking youth for their input when navigating a challenge or exploring a new idea, providing the opportunity for learning and growth between youth and adults along the way.

Additionally, youth voice is essential for ensuring that young people have opportunities to contribute to decision-making processes, policies, programs, and initiatives that affect their lives now and into the future. By providing youth with the opportunity to actively participate and lead, we are investing in youth as true partners and valuable stakeholders in shaping the present and future of our communities and society.

Sherry Bryant
Sherry Bryant
Q. What are other ways adults can support youth as they use their voices and their agency? 

Bryant: First and foremost, adults can actively listen to what youth have to say—without judgement or interruption—creating safe spaces for them to express themselves is a great place to start. 

I think two important actions to follow are amplifying their voices and offering resources and opportunities to help further develop both their own ideas and their skills and capacity to make them happen. Adults can amplify youth voice by using their own platforms, networks, and influence to help youth reach broader audiences and establish new, beneficial connections. Resources and opportunities can come in so many different forms—everything from training and education to networking and funding can tangibly benefit youth agency.

I truly believe it is for the benefit of not only youth, but communities at large to support youth in using their voices and agency to advocate for themselves and create positive change.

Q. What is your hope for a summit like this one? 

Gillespie: Our mission for the Charlottesville Teen Summit is to empower young individuals to discover their passions, embrace leadership, and make a positive impact in the community. 

We hope the summit is a valuable and engaging opportunity for local teens to come together, be in community, and build connections. And, of course, we hope to have good fun, good laughs, and great food throughout the day!

If you know a Charlottesville area teen that would like to attend (grades 9-12), please share with them the event. Interested participants can email [email protected] with any questions.

Cville Teen Summit

Read about the inaugural Charlottesville Teen Summit that will be held Saturday, April 27, 2024.

News Information

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Research Center or Department

  • Youth-Nex