Building Infrastructure for Youth Organizing

In this series on youth engagement we’ve shared about the importance of viewing engagement as a relationship, looked at accountability in the sector, and discussed disruptive and innovative youth-led work. We’ve also had young people share what youth leadership means to them, what challenges they face and successes they’ve had in organizing, and what allies can do to support youth leadership.

We know that meaningful youth engagement and leadership opportunities are important as they contribute significantly to positive youth development. In Youth Organizing Expanding Possibilities for Youth Development, the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) details the ways in which youth organizing builds youth capacity:

  • Interpersonal capacity, which includes meeting young people’s need for belonging, safety, self-awareness, and self-worth, and helping them build a wide range of skills.
  • Socio-political capacity, which emphasizes connections between common community problems and broader political and social issues.
  • Community capacity, which focuses on how communities address and change relevant community and social problems.

So, what does it really take to promote, foster, and support youth leadership?

First and foremost, we need to start from a place that sees young people as experts and leaders. When we start from this asset-based place it forces us to rethink what we can do to reduce barriers to leadership and instead help enable youth leadership to flourish. What is required is strong youth social infrastructure that supports youth organizing and leadership across Ontario. Infrastructure that is built according the diverse and unique needs and contexts of young leaders across Ontario.

“The goal of a social infrastructure is to build capacity at an individual, group and community level. A social infrastructure for youth organizing encompasses a variety of different elements that work collectively to build capacity and sustainable support, placing power in the hands of young people in communities.” Building Ontario’s Youth Social Infrastructure to transform and sustain youth engagement and organizing.pdf (2.9 MB)

(Foundations and Pipelines)

Where have we been and where should we be going?

Over the last 10 years we have seen more intention given to the building of more robust social infrastructure for youth leadership in Ontario. Initiatives like the Youth Challenge Fund and the Youth Social Infrastructure (YSI) Collaborative were built to expand the infrastructure for youth leadership and improve the lives of young people in the province. There is no doubt that these initiatives, and many others, have support young leaders. However, today, we are still in a place where more work is needed.

In 2014 the Funders Alliance for Children Youth and Families and the Laidlaw Foundation released Foundations & Pipelines: Building Social Infrastructure to Foster Youth Organizing. The report provides a clear vision for what needs to happen next, and identifies that strong infrastructure for youth organizing requires:

  • Stronger core administrative capacities in youth organizing work
  • Training and professional development
  • Access to resources and tools
  • Opportunities to network with peers and mentors
  • Access to intermediaries (e.g., peers, organizations, consultants, etc.)
  • Strategic funding approaches

The Foundations & Pipelines report was important in that it detailed the existing infrastructure and put forward a path for strong infrastructure. It emphasized the need to fund young people directly to develop and implement projects in their communities. The report was limiting though in it’s largely Greater Toronto Area (GTA) focus. There have been significant efforts to build the social infrastructure for youth leadership in the GTA for some time, but many of these efforts have not extended beyond the region. Young people across the province are taking initiative and demanding space for themselves to lead, but too often there are still inadequate supports and infrastructure to equip young people with the skills to bring their leadership to the next level and support sustaining youth organizing. These shortcomings are exasperated outside of the GTA, and deepen as you move north into more remote communities. Of course there is no one size fits all model, and the infrastructure that is being built needs to be attuned to the diverse and unique realities of young people across Ontario.

We need specific strategies for equipping young Indigenous leaders and in particular Indigenous young people living in remote communities that recognize the realities of living on reserve, the local cultural context and governing systems, and existing youth leadership infrastructure. We also need approaches targeted to support young Black leaders in communities outside of the GTA (e.g., Ottawa, London, Windsor, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, etc.) that recognize the realities of anti-Black racism. These approaches, and others, and the continued investment in GTA social infrastructure for youth organizing require sustained commitments from funders, government, non-profit organizations, and the private sector. And, of course, all this needs to be developed and lead by young people themselves.

How are you supporting youth leadership? What are you doing to help build strong social infrastructure to enable youth organizing? What do you think needs to happen next, particularly outside of the GTA?