Abstract and Keywords
Youth empowerment examines young people’s agency, action, and engagement in change efforts to improve their situations. Its scholarship builds on empowerment constructs and frameworks to focus on the strengths that young people possess as they interact with other individuals and systems in their lives. In particular, youth empowerment rests on a core belief that young people are experts on their lives, with unique perspectives to bring to their communities. Empowerment functions on three core levels, focusing on strengthening individuals’ personal, interpersonal, and political power. This article explores key concepts that underlie personal, interpersonal, and political empowerment, while most deeply examining the core principles, practices, and strategies specific to young people’s political empowerment. Challenges commonly faced when seeking to empower young people are identified as well.
A long-established social work literature examines empowerment, identifying multilevel frameworks that emphasize the agency and capacity of individuals, organizations, and communities to act in ways that improve their situations (Gutierrez, 1990; Rappaport, 1987; Zimmerman, 2000). Youth empowerment extends this work, examining young people’s agency, action, and engagement in change efforts. Its scholarship builds on empowerment constructs and frameworks to focus on the strengths that young people possess as they interact with other individuals and systems in their lives. In particular, youth empowerment rests on a core belief that young people are experts on their lives, with unique perspectives to bring to their communities (Finn & Checkoway, 1998; Golombek, 2006; Nicotera, 2008).
Youth empowerment has increasing importance for the field of social work. As Delgado and Staples (2008, p. 17) note, “This age group bears the brunt of society’s fears, as well as the vicissitudes of social policies and programs.” The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics specifically calls on social workers to promote the agency and meaningful participation of vulnerable individuals through voice, agency, and empowerment. These ethical imperatives set the stage for empowering young people to participate actively in decision-making within institutionalized settings affecting their daily lives. Through this asset-based approach, youth empowerment offers a meaningful response to the first of social work’s Grand Challenges: Ensure healthy development for all youth.
By empowering and engaging the voices of those most marginalized, the approach teaches young people critical skills that are increasingly relevant in the current political climate. The importance of youth empowerment is also underscored by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an international doctrine that outlines core human rights of young people, including young people’s right to participate in their communities (UN, 1989; Richards-Schuster & Pritzker, 2015). Through its “participation clauses,” the CRC conceptualizes youth as competent contributors to their communities, codifying their right to participate meaningfully in decisions that affect their own lives and communities (Chawla & Driskell, 2006; Nybell, 2013).
Despite its potential, youth empowerment is still developing within social work. Empowerment is discussed both as a process and an outcome in the literature (Pearrow, 2008; Wagaman, 2011). There seems to be a “blur” of the concept, as Russell, Muraco, Subramaniam, and Laub (2009, p. 891) argue that youth empowerment has become one of a set of interchangeably used terms, including youth leadership, youth activism, and civic engagement. Similarly, Delgado and Staples (2008, p. 17) discuss the interconnections among terms such as “youth civic activism, community service, civic engagement, decision-making, participation, empowerment, involvement, community-driven, development, positive development, community development, leadership, and led.” Even within youth-based studies specifically using empowerment terminology, empowerment is “defined differently in every study” (Wagaman, 2011, p. 279).
Another key issue is who the youth are that are to be empowered. While the United Nations, through the CRC (UN, 1989), specifically spells out the participatory rights of all young people under age 18, social work literature is less clear. An analysis of social work–related literature on youth civic engagement, a concept closely related to youth empowerment, found that a majority of US-based social work literature uses the term youth to refer to young people, whereas English-language social work literature outside the United States more often uses the term children (Richards-Schuster & Pritzker, 2015). This distinction in terms is reinforced by a difference in the actual age ranges of the young people under study—the international social work literature focuses on a broader age range, engaging even young, preschool children in empowerment-related activities. In US social work literature, the mean age of young people under study is 16.99 years old, compared to the younger mean of 14.56 years in international literature (Richards-Schuster & Pritzker, 2015). In this article, the authors work from an expansive conception of age, conceiving of empowerment as an opportunity for practice even with young children.
Empowerment is understood as functioning on three core levels, focusing on strengthening individuals’ personal, interpersonal, and political power (Gutierrez, 1990). To date, however, youth empowerment research focuses primarily on personal or interpersonal empowerment, with less attention specifically to young people’s political empowerment or ways that young people use their empowerment to enact change in organizations, communities, or other civic systems. While this article explores key concepts that underlie personal, interpersonal, and political empowerment, it more deeply examines practices and approaches specific to young people’s political empowerment.
Historical Perspective and Core Concepts
Youth empowerment as a focus within social work emerged in part as a reaction to a framework that often views young people as problems or as victims. In a seminal social work article, Finn and Checkoway (1998) argued that social work had largely problematized young people, limiting the potential for them to be seen as assets or, in the authors’ words, “competent citizens” (p. 335). While youth-focused scholarship has built an extensive body of knowledge, Ginwright and Cammarota (2002, p. 83) argued that “its central focus is identifying youth problems such as delinquency, substance abuse, and violence,” and that this is “particularly the case with research on African-American and Latino youth.”
In contrast, youth empowerment scholarship focuses on young people’s strengths. At its core, youth empowerment concentrates on the processes of young people reducing powerlessness by gaining power—over their own lives, within the agencies and institutions that serve them, in their communities, or in the broader society. At all levels of empowerment, young people come to see themselves as change agents who can use their growing self-efficacy, increased critical consciousness about how power structures affect their experiences, reduced sense of self-blame for problems attributable to others, and sense of personal responsibility for helping to bring about change to do so (Gutierrez, 1990).
As Gutierrez (1990) notes, the empowerment perspective is grounded in conflict theory. Distinct groups hold distinct levels of power. Attention to these different levels of power and how they affect young people is needed in order to fully support young people’s successful development.
Positive Youth Development (PYD)
As a concept, youth empowerment draws from multiple threads of scholarship. In addition to the broad empowerment scholarship discussed previously, it is informed by scholarship focusing on positive youth development (PYD) and youth participation in civic engagement. PYD scholarship explores youth development through a positive lens. It explores factors and structures that young people need to develop fully as active, engaged adults, as well as the ways that young people contribute positively to their communities, organizations, and society (e.g., Benson, Scales, Hamilton, & Sesma, 2006; Larson, 2000; Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003). For example, Benson et al. (2006) identified a list of developmental assets that young people should have in their communities, and Lerner et al. (2003) developed models of what young people need in order to thrive in their communities. PYD scholarship often examines contextual factors that affect the ways young people engage with one another, with adults, with organizations, and with their communities. Camino (2000), for example, uses a PYD lens to examine youth-adult partnerships. PYD is commonly used as a framework for after-school programs and national youth-serving networks.
Some scholars, however, have criticized PYD for not going far enough in examining youth’s political engagement or the larger sociopolitical context in which young people contribute, potentially leaving the field with an overromanticized, problem-free view of youth (e.g., Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002). Some scholars also critique PYD frames as “based on universalistic, white middle-class conceptions of youth,” essentializing young people’s experience through “one dominant cultural frame” (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002, p. 85).
Youth Participation in Civic Engagement
Civic engagement draws on core principles around the rights, responsibilities, and notions of citizenship and can be viewed as a “backbone for the social work profession” (McBride, 2013, p. 1). Social work civic engagement scholars examine young people’s political, programmatic, and community change efforts within institutions and systems that affect their lives (Checkoway, 2011). The term civic engagement is often used interchangeably with youth participation, with both terms concerned about where and how young people contribute meaningfully to structures and processes in their lives (Pritzker & Richards-Schuster, 2016). While youth civic engagement scholarship shares PYD’s focus on young people’s capacity to contribute positively to macrosystems, it also addresses at least one critique of PYD frameworks through its attention to engaging young people as political actors.
Historically, youth civic engagement scholarship in political science and developmental psychology focused on traditional notions of citizenship, including political activities, voting practices, and participation in youth leadership activities like student council. Recent social work scholarship emphasizes a more expansive view of civic engagement, including such varied behaviors as volunteer service, youth-led community change, and youth involvement in local policy change efforts (Augsberger, Collins, Gecker, & Dougher, 2018; McBride, Pritzker, Daftary, & Tang, 2007; Nicotera, 2008; Pritzker & Richards-Schuster, 2016; Sprague-Martinez et al., 2017; Teixeira, 2015).
Key Principles of Youth Empowerment
A number of key principles help to articulate the values and processes underlying youth empowerment. While many of the principles described here apply to youth empowerment at all levels—individual, interpersonal, and political—all apply specifically to political empowerment. These core principles of viewing youth as assets, emphasizing partnerships between youth and adults, promoting meaningful participation for young people, and respecting children’s rights through the promotion of youth voices are explicated next.
Finn and Checkoway (1998), in a call to action for social work, focused the profession’s attention on the importance of viewing youth as assets. They argued that youth empowerment and civic engagement practices are built on a fundamental set of core values, including the ideas of young people as “competent citizens” and “resources” to the institutions and communities around them (p. 336). These basic values link directly to social work’s strengths-based perspective, recognizing the advantages that youth can bring to the various systems with which they engage. Empowerment calls for not only acknowledging these strengths, but also supporting young people in further developing them (Zimmerman, 2000).
A range of scholars emphasize the importance of youth-adult partnerships, in which youth and adults are partners in the process of creating change (e.g., Camino, 2000; Zeldin, Christen, & Powers, 2013). Youth-adult partnerships are commonly defined as “multiple youth and multiple adults deliberating and acting together, in a collective fashion over a sustained period of time, through shared work, intended to promote social justice, strengthen an organization, and/or affirmatively address a community issue” (Zeldin et al., 2013, p. 388). Youth-adult partnerships reconceptualize youth and adult roles, focusing on shared, collaborative decision-making instead of the more traditional, unidirectional adult power relationship that places boundaries on young people (Camino, 2000). Adults serve as “bridgers” or “allies” who support young people in their work and help them to negotiate adult-led spaces. Committed adults support young people as they navigate power differentials, empowering them to engage in spaces where they may not have traditionally participated.
Youth empowerment scholarship and practice value understanding the roles and motivations of both young people and adults in order to create space for meaningful participation. The principle of meaningful participation expects that young people’s participation is authentic and real, rather than passive or tokenized (e.g., Checkoway & Aldana, 2013; Driskell, 2002). It derives from Arnstein’s (1969) Ladder of Participation, which modeled ways in which citizens were engaging in community-based policy programs in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Arnstein was not thinking about the role of young people at the time, Hart (1992) later applied the ladder directly to conceptualizing youth participation. Hart visualized a Children’s Ladder of Participation, with rungs from 1 (the lowest) to 8 (the highest):
• Rung 1: Young people are manipulated (adults use young people without their recognition, pretending that causes are youth-initiated).
• Rung 2: Young people are decorated (they are used as decoration to help an adult cause).
• Rung 3: Young people are tokenized (they are involved, but not listened to seriously nor given a real role).
• Rung 4: Young people are assigned and informed (they are given a role, but not given a choice about the role they will take).
• Rung 5: Young people are consulted and informed (they are reached out to for advice on decisions and kept aware of what is happening).
• Rung 6: Causes are adult-initiated, but decision-making is shared between adults and young people.
• Rung 7: Young people lead and initiate action.
• Rung 8: Young people and adults fully share in decision-making.
Hart argued that rungs 1–3 are not true participation, and therefore not meaningful to youth participants, whereas the subsequent rungs reflect increasing levels of youth participation. The highest rungs, 6, 7, and 8, emphasize the importance of young people’s active leadership in decision-making. Hart argued that the highest level of participation involves adults and youth sharing equal power.
Scholars like Wong, Zimmerman, and Parker (2010) instead argue that youth-led participation (rung 7) is actually a higher level of youth empowerment than shared decision-making (rung 8). Their five types of youth participation map closely to Hart’s and Arnstein’s ladders, until the highest level. The first, vessel participation, assumes that young people are vessels who gain from adults as program recipients. The second, symbolic participation, is similar to Hart’s third rung, with young people’s roles largely tokenistic and lacking substance. The remaining three participation types reflect increasing shifts in the nature of youth-adult relationships. The third, pluralistic participation, entails fairly equal youth-adult participation. The fourth, independent participation, moves young people toward greater independence, with adults helping to create spaces for youth participation. Finally, autonomous participation refers to youth leadership without adult involvement.
An emphasis on youth empowerment is underscored by growing international attention to the concept of fundamental children’s rights, as codified by the United Nations in its CRC (UN, 1989). The CRC has been ratified across the globe by all but one of the UN member-countries (although the United States is a signatory, it has not yet ratified the CRC). The notion of children’s rights informs understanding of youth’s personal, interpersonal, and political empowerment, as it points to their fundamental rights both to be able to communicate their preferences and to be heard (Golombek, 2006; Nybell, 2013; Richards-Schuster & Pritzker, 2015). While non-US-based English-language social work research is more likely to explicitly and frequently reference the CRC in grounding youth participation work, US-based scholarship shares similar principles (Richards-Schuster & Pritzker, 2015).
Of particular relevance to youth empowerment is one of four general principles in the CRC: respect for the views of the child. This general principle is articulated in Article 12, which specifically details that all children have an innate right to freely speak their views on any matters affecting them, as well as the right to be heard in all decision-making processes affecting them. Further empowerment-related rights are described in Articles 13–15, including a child’s right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
Core Youth Empowerment Practices
This section examines four cross-cutting core practices of youth empowerment. These practices are elucidated in Table 1 using three key frameworks derived from a review of the youth political empowerment literature; each was drawn from analysis of multiple examples of youth engagement in practice (Akom, Ginwright, & Cammarota, 2008; Jennings, Parra-Medina, Hilfinger-Messias, & McLoughlin, 2006; Richards-Schuster & Dobbie, 2011). Akom et al. (2008) examined organizational factors that support critical youth media. Jennings et al. (2006) reviewed multiple models of US-based youth empowerment. Richards-Schuster and Dobbie (2011) assessed multiple case examples of youth organizing efforts.
Table 1. Core Youth Empowerment Practices
Akom et al. (2008)
Jennings et al. (2006)
Richards-Schuster and Dobbie (2011)
Creating a welcoming space that promotes meaningful and authentic youth engagement
Participatory and youth-driven spaces
Creating a welcoming environment;
meaningful participation by and engagement of youth
Creating physical space and organizational roles for young people
Key adults who support young people and share power with them on key issues
Cooperative, engaging youth and adults in a joint research process in which each contributes equitably;
committed to colearning, cofacilitating, and a collegiality
Equitable power-sharing between youth and adults
Providing dedicated adult allies
Critical reflection and critical analysis
Seeking a balance between critical thinking, reflection, analysis, and action;
challenging traditional paradigms, methods, and texts
Engaging in critical reflection on interpersonal and sociopolitical processes
Facilitating critical education and skill-building for community action
Opportunities for youth action
Involving local capacity-building
Participating in sociopolitical processes to effect change
Integrating action with reflection
The first core practice, creating a welcoming space that promotes meaningful and authentic youth engagement, requires organizations to pay attention to the environments that they create for young people. For example, Nygreen, Ah Kwon, and Sanchez (2006, p. 117) argue that “community spaces must be culturally and ethnically supportive environments where youth can build personal and leadership skills, enrich their sense of ethnic and cultural history, and gain political community organizing skills.” Further, while literature often discusses young people’s need for social space or dialogue, it focuses less on the important role of physical space in empowering young people (Nygreen et al., 2006).
Creating a welcoming space that empowers young people might involve examining whether physical spaces are available for them to gather, meet, and work, as well as whether these spaces are inviting to young people. It also can refer to the social and emotional environment of the organization: Is this a space where young people feel like they matter? Is there organizational buy-in for youth engagement? Are young people treated with respect? A welcoming space also may involve setting organizational norms that promote and respect youth’s roles within an organization; that is, does the organization, through its staff, mission, and programs, engage young people in meaningful ways? Do young people truly have an opportunity to participate meaningfully in decision-making?
The second core practice involves ensuring that young people have access to key adults who support them and who are willing to share power with them. This practice derives from the core principle of youth-adult partnerships. Distinct from what may take place in other forms of youth development, adults who work with young people in youth empowerment programs as partners in creating change are often referred to as “allies” (Gordon, 2007; Nygreen et al., 2006; Watts & Flanagan, 2007). These adults directly engage in supportive roles rather than leading roles, enabling young people to develop a sense of their own power and the skills to use it. As VeLure Roholt (2009, p. 169) explains, these adults take on “the intentional practice of inviting, supporting, preparing, and evaluating young persons to be active citizens now and to continue to be lifelong citizens.”
Youth empowerment engages young people in critical reflection and critical analysis, the third core practice. Young people are provided opportunities to reflect and learn from their work and engage in critical analysis of how various systems—interpersonal to social—affect their work and their lives. This involves teaching young people how to ask questions about their own communities and helping them to develop sociopolitical awareness about the impact of systems on young people. Critical reflection goes beyond simple reflection on activities, instead “provid[ing] youth [with] opportunities to engage in an integrated participatory cycle of critical reflection and reflective actions with the goal of creating change in sociopolitical processes, structures, norms, and images” (Jennings et al., 2006, p. 47). Watts and Flanagan (2007) argued that this reflection should ask young people to deeply critique systems rather than encouraging them to maintain systems that may perpetuate injustice; in their view, sociopolitical education and training are critical to empowering youth.
Closely linked to reflection is the fourth core youth empowerment practice: opportunities for youth action, whether at the individual, interpersonal, or political level. Depending on the level, action may take a range of forms, such as expressing one’s needs in an educational or social service setting, participating in collective decision-making about an agency’s programs, engaging in individual or group community service to address a community problem, or vocally challenging what young people perceive as societal injustices, as in the case of young people who have risked their safety to advocate for greater rights on the part of undocumented youth. Watts and Flanagan (2007) argued that youth gain a stronger sense of their own power when they are supported in taking action to challenge systems.
Strategies That Empower Youth
Programs and structures designed to foster young people’s empowerment employ a range of strategies that incorporate the practices described in the previous section. Checkoway and Aldana (2013) identify four key common approaches for youth empowerment programs: citizen participation, grass-roots organizing, intergroup dialogue, and sociopolitical empowerment. Other recognized youth empowerment approaches include youth participatory research and arts-based engagement. This section explores five of the main empowerment strategies incorporated in these approaches: youth councils or advisory boards, youth organizing, youth participatory action research (YPAR), youth dialogues, and youth arts and media.
Youth councils or advisory boards employ key civic engagement tenets in order to involve youth directly in influencing change. Through councils, young people advise adult decision-makers and participate in their own decision-making regarding the actions of organizational and governmental units. Youth agency boards are utilized as a model for authentic youth empowerment in the organizational context (Akiva, Cortina, & Smoth, 2014, Young & Sazama, 1999). Youth also serve as advisors to agencies and governmental units in areas such as child welfare and foster care (e.g., Clay, Amodeo, & Collins, 2010; Coates & Howe, 2014; Day, Riebschleger, Dworsky, Damashek, & Fogarty, 2012; Havlicek, Lin, & Braun 2016). Youth governmental councils have been common in international contexts, while youth councils in municipal governments are gaining attention in the United States (Augsberger et al., 2018; Checkoway, Allison, & Montoya, 2005; VeLure Roholt & Mueller, 2013). It is important to note that in practice, young people’s participation in such councils ranges from decoration and tokenization (rungs 2 and 3 on the Children’s Ladder of Participation) to meaningful decision-making (rung 8).
Through youth organizing, young people work with other youth to build collective power. They participate directly in identifying issues, developing strategies, and demonstrating power, drawing on their agency to challenge power systems, disrupt practices, and pursue social justice. They implement actions focused on changing policies and practices that affect them. A growing, youth-focused organizing scholarship and practice has emerged from grass-roots community organizing over the last 15 years, exploring the potential and promise of youth-organizing efforts (Delgado & Staples, 2008; Ginwright, Noguera, & Cammorata, 2006). Youth-organizing literature is particularly interested in practices with youth of color; LGBTQ youth; and youth in low-income communities that have been on the forefront of organizing for social change (e.g., Nygreen et al., 2006; Pyles, 2009; Teixeira, 2015; Wernick, Woodford, & Kulick, 2014). Case studies demonstrate the array of issues around which young people organize, including reproductive justice, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, increasing access to education, fighting zero-tolerance policies, substance abuse prevention, environmental justice, and health equity (Bosma, Komro, Perry, Mortenson, & Farnakhsh, 2008; Perea et al., 2014; Share & Stacks, 2007; Teixeira, 2015; Wernick, Dessel, Kulick, & Graham, 2013).
In recent years, the use of youth participatory action research (YPAR) has grown. YPAR, also referred to as youth participatory action research and evaluation (YPARE), engages young people in knowledge development. Young people ask questions, gather and analyze information, and then use that information to take action (e.g., Aldana, Richards-Schuster, & Checkoway, 2015; Delgado, 2006; Johnston-Goodstar, 2013; Kellett, 2010; Ozer, Newlan, Douglas, & Hubbard, 2013; Sprague-Martinez et al., 2017). One common YPAR strategy, photovoice, engages young people in identifying community issues through visual methods, especially photography. For example, photovoice has been used to engage youth in understanding the role of parks in community development strategies (Perea et al., 2014) and in assessing community needs and assets, as in the case of a summer youth employment program (Gant et al., 2009) and in a heavily Latino-serving charter school (Pritzker, LaChapelle, & Tatum, 2012). Recent adaptations of the photovoice strategy incorporate participatory mapping projects that involve youth in developing visualizations of their communities through walk-around tours and interactive maps (Dennis, Gaulocher, Carpiano, & Brown, 2009). For example, participatory-mapping techniques have been used to engage young people in gaining knowledge about property vacancies in an urban neighborhood (Teixeira, 2015).
Youth dialogues are youth-facilitated discussions of critical social issues. Through this strategy, young people address racial tensions and issues of diversity within school, community, and regional settings (Checkoway, 2009; Checkoway & Aldana, 2013; Griffin, Brown, & Warren, 2012; Nagda, McCoy, & Barrett, 2006). Griffin et al. (2012) found intergroup dialogue to be a critical multicultural and pedagogical approach for reducing intergroup conflict in public high schools. In a multiyear program to engage young people in metropolitan Detroit in dialogue on race and ethnicity across a segregated region, Checkoway (2009) found that this approach can increase awareness, support intergroup engagement, and result in youth-led projects that address issues of discrimination in schools and communities.
Youth empowerment also takes place through youth arts and media (e.g., Ford et al., 2013; Johnston-Goodstar, Richards-Schuster, & Sethi, 2014; Wernick et al., 2014). In this strategy, the arts become a tool for engaging young people and a vehicle through which young people take action to effect change. For example, Wernick et al. (2014) describe a participatory action youth theater method that empowers LGBTQ youth to provide suggestions to power holders regarding effective LGBTQ policies in schools. In another example, the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia launched A Place to Call Home, an advocacy initiative that engages and empowers young people by depicting their stories of housing insecurity and homelessness through provocative art for the purpose of making their invisible suffering a matter of public concern (Cannuscio, Bugos, Hersh, Asch, & Weiss, 2012). Youth media organizations are also increasingly engaging youth in critical analysis and developing youth-led narratives to guide change through the use of media (e.g., Johnston-Goodyear et al., 2014).
Outcomes Emerging From Youth Empowerment Practices
Very few systematic reviews have examined outcomes emerging from youth empowerment practices. However, individual studies have linked youth empowerment with a range of possible outcomes. Emerging outcomes focus on participating youth, the organizations that serve them, and their communities. These outcomes are often used as rationales for engaging young people in empowerment practices (Wagaman, 2011).
Youth empowerment practices have been found to elicit individual-level outcomes for young people, including positive attitudes, skills, and behaviors (Morton & Montgomery, 2013). Research points to increases in self-awareness, self-confidence, health, and coping (e.g., Johnston-Goodstar, 2013; Nygreen et al., 2006). Youth empowerment also has been linked with the avoidance of risky behavior and improved academic outcomes (Bosma et al., 2008; Checkoway et al., 2005; McBride et al., 2007). Studies of youth empowerment practices commonly measure direct impacts on youth empowerment; however, Wagaman (2011) found that these studies utilize a wide array of measures and do not consistently or clearly measure similar levels of empowerment (i.e., personal, interpersonal, or political).
While few studies of youth empowerment practices have identified a means of measuring young people’s political empowerment (Wagaman, 2011), related civic engagement outcomes are commonly identified. These include the development of young people’s civic identity and their future participation in community events, youth programming, and/or social justice activities (Gambone, Yu, Lewis-Charp, Sipe, & Lacoe, 2006; Mitra, Serriere, & Kirshner, 2014; Nicotera, 2008). A significant amount of research also has highlighted positive impacts on societal awareness; that is, how young people understand personal and systemic issues at play in society and ways in which they are connected to those issues (Caringi, Klika, Zimmerman, Trautman, & Pol, 2013; Chaskin, 2009; Golombek, 2006).
Interestingly, Gant et al. (2009) found evidence that impacts on young people’s civic engagement may vary by age. In a study of youth engaged in a photovoice project, they saw that participants over 18 were more likely to demonstrate increased positive attitudes about civic engagement compared to younger youth.
Sinclair’s (2004) observation that “more is known about how to support young people to make participation more rewarding for them—but less about how that participation can bring about change” (p. 115) continues to describe the state of research regarding organizational and community-level outcomes from youth empowerment practices. While research points to the potential for organizational and community change to emerge from youth empowerment practices, the field lacks statistical evidence showing the extent of these changes. Organizational and community-level outcomes are often anecdotal or implied through discussion of project activities. For example, Chawla and Driskell (2006) discuss how active participation in community-planning efforts has led to a new understanding of young people’s needs in the community, with young people subsequently brought into local community development projects as consultants and facilitators.
Limitations and Critiques of Youth Empowerment
While much of this article has examined youth empowerment through a lens of positive benefit, it is important to recognize the limitations and challenges existing within youth empowerment practices. Practices to promote youth empowerment do not always, in fact, empower young people, nor do they always reach and empower all youth. The core principles and practices that are important for empowering youth—such as being supported by adults who share power with young people, engage them in decision-making, and take their ideas seriously—can fall short in reality. When this occurs, even the most well meaning programs and well intentioned adults can disempower young people (Shier, 2010; Sinclair, 2004; Bijleveld et al., 2014).
A major critique of youth empowerment is the potential that young people could be engaged in tokenized or symbolic ways, as represented by rungs 1–3 on Hart’s (1992) Children’s Ladder of Participation. For example, Bijleveld et al. (2014, p. 258) discuss challenges to empowerment within child welfare systems as follows: “Until children are seen as social actors with a right to be involved, young people and case managers will not agree about participation.” Mitra et al. (2014) further discusses the damage that this can have on young people, stating, “Tokenistic or symbolic youth participation can be damaging to young people, as the promise of voice without actually being heard can lead to increased alienation and disconnection” (p. 293). Nybell (2013) underscores the care that must go into making sure that young people’s participation takes place on higher rungs of the participation ladder. She argues, “Giving children and youth opportunities to comment on policies and programs can too easily become token efforts that legitimate adult perspectives or authorize limited programs of change” (p. 1228).
A related critique centers on the concept of “bounded empowerment” (Ozer et al., 2013, p. 14), the idea that young people’s empowerment is often limited and constrained by adults who do not listen to their ideas or by structural impediments to their ideas for change being realized. Similarly, Ozer et al. (2013) suggest that schools are challenging sites for YPAR due to inherent tensions in structural power within that context that limit youth voice and power. Adu-Gyamfi (2013) argues that young people’s participation can lead to self-confidence, but not empowerment, when their ideas do not truly influence organizations, communities, or policy. The structural challenges that young people may face when seeking to build power help explain the critical importance of the core practice of creating a welcoming space that promotes meaningful and authentic youth engagement. Without structures that “offer genuine participation to children that is not an add-on but an integral part of the way adults and organisations relate to children,” young people’s empowerment will likely be bounded (Sinclair, 2004, p. 116).
Young people’s empowerment also may be limited by issues of access and representation. Despite their good intentions, efforts to empower youth may not reach disenfranchised youth, resulting in the reproduction of patterns of inequality in which more privileged youth have increased access to participation (Augsberger et al., 2018). Understanding who has opportunities to participate in youth empowerment practices and how to “ensure the widest representation” is a critical issue for social workers who engage in youth empowerment work (Sinclair, 2004, p. 115).
Contrasts between the rhetoric of participation and the reality of engaging and empowering youth have emerged as a critical issue among social work scholars who examine youth empowerment through the lens of the CRC (Richards-Schuster & Pritzker, 2015). Such concerns have led scholars, particularly in international contexts, to ask questions not just about youth empowerment practices, but also about their quality, authenticity, and scope (Richards-Schuster & Pritzker, 2015; Shier & Mendez, 2014; Sinclair, 2004). These issues of quality speak to the importance of examining institutional structures to ensure that they can effectively embed authentic youth participation (Sinclair, 2004), as well as of supporting social workers—and all adults who work to empower young people—in developing the skills to engage with young people in ways that promote meaningful youth empowerment (Nybell, 2013).
Moving Forward With Youth Empowerment in Social Work
The current social and political climate presents an important opportunity for expanding the presence and quality of youth empowerment in social work research and practice. Youth empowerment, as well as related concepts of youth civic engagement and youth participation, are critical to social work (Finn & Checkoway, 1998). At the personal, interpersonal, and political levels, youth empowerment builds on a strong ethical base that values voice, participation, and human rights for all vulnerable populations and offers an essential contrast to the extensive scholarship and practice that problematizes children and youth. Consistent with the profession’s Grand Challenges, the youth empowerment literature provides evidence that empowerment is an essential component of healthy youth development. By engaging young people in empowerment practices, social workers can help lay the groundwork for other aspects of healthy development. At the same time, multiple gaps in literature and practice need to be addressed in order to fully support young people in developing a sense of their own power.
As Pritzker and Richards-Schuster (2016) found in their analysis of a decade’s worth of youth civic engagement literature in social work, the profession faces a need for clarity in concepts related to building youth’s assets and power. For example, are youth civic engagement, youth participation, and youth empowerment distinct practices, or are they multiple sides of the same coin? Certainly, youth empowerment incorporates building young people’s assets on a personal and interpersonal level—concepts not emphasized within youth civic engagement or participation—but more conceptual and theoretical work is needed to determine what specifically differentiates political empowerment from these other concepts.
Also recommended is moving toward a more cohesive body of research that is better equipped to educate and inform social work practitioners who work directly with youth, as well as those who lead youth-serving agencies and government institutions. This should include increased attention to clear conceptualization and measurement of key concepts related to youth empowerment, such as power, young people’s political empowerment, and youth voices (Mitra et al., 2014; Wagaman, 2011). To date, a large portion of the research on outcomes from youth empowerment practices is based on single case studies. Both practitioners and researchers would benefit from more attention to rigorous research in assessing individual, organizational, and community-level outcomes emerging from youth empowerment practices, particularly with regard to political empowerment. In addition, assessment of how core youth empowerment practices contribute to various outcomes is needed through examining questions like which settings best support youth empowerment.
The field also would benefit from more attention in research and practice to understanding mechanisms that empower both children and adolescents. Given the CRC’s provision of rights to voice, expression, and participation in decision-making for all young people under age 18, US-based social work can learn from international efforts to empower preadolescent children in age-appropriate ways. Concerns about issues of access and representation suggest a need for a clearer understanding of which young people currently have access to youth empowerment practices. In practice, social work practitioners should be mindful to provide youth empowerment opportunities specifically to vulnerable and disenfranchised youth.
Both in practice and in research, social work needs to pay further attention to the identified challenges to successful youth empowerment practices. Continuing to build knowledge about how to effectively ensure meaningful and authentic implementation of youth empowerment practices is needed to ensure that social workers can help empower vulnerable young people to bring change to their lives and to the systems that affect them.
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