As the president of my high school environmental club and the youth leader of The Promise Project, I’ve learned a few things about how to empower youth to become leaders.
(1) Facilitate, don’t delegate. How do you keep youth motivated? The answer is simple – true leadership is all about “facilitating”, not “delegating”. You may think that assigning tasks is the same thing as giving youth a leadership role, but until you actually give youth a real piece of the project, something that they can take ownership of and be creative with, they will always be less motivated to work on the project. Instead of asking them to design you a logo, let them be a part of creating the project behind that logo. You have to give them a reason to care about the project, and the best way to do that is to give them the space to make it their own project.
(2) Don’t be afraid that the project will be too big for them to handle. Sometimes adults are wary of giving kids projects that are too big for them, because they worry that youth will just be discouraged. However, in my own experience, I was always frustrated by the insignificance of the projects assigned to me. Here I was, planning a crafting-with-recycled-materials party when the ice caps were melting! I wanted to do something meaningful that would have a bigger impact, something that, even though it might require hard work and long-term planning, would ultimately feel important. Let kids be in charge of planning and executing a large outside-the-box fundraiser, rather than limiting them to contributing cookies for the bake sale. If you give kids meaningful projects to work on, they will impress you. Youth are imaginative and idealistic, and they still believe that anything can be conquered with persistence (which it can).
(3) Be the motivator. When kids do get discouraged, that’s where you come in. Anyone working on a major project has to learn how to deal with setbacks, and it’s no different for kids. Maybe an organization they asked to participate in their Earth Day fair rejected the invitation, or maybe their recycling contest had disappointing participation levels. You can help them remember why they started this project in the first place, and help them learn to move past failure. You can offer advice, guidance, and support, and, most importantly, be the voice that tells them to keep going.
By letting youth take ownership of your project, you will find that they rise to the occasion and are far more motivated. You are the facilitator, supporter, motivator, and mentor, but ultimately, it needs to be their project. That is a gift to youth, a gift that will educate them and give them the confidence they need for a lifetime of changing the world.