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Building Community Through Teen Led Public Forums


4hShelley Murdock, Contra Costa County, and Carole Paterson, Solano County, are 4-H Youth Development Advisors with the University of California Cooperative Extension. Both have extensive field experience working with and mentoring teens; have conducted numerous applied research projects on adolescent issues; and have master degrees in non-formal education. 

Those of us working in the youth development field have known for many years that young people have the talent and energy to understand, analyze and create positive change in their communities. Research on asset-based youth development, as well as civic engagement principles, tell us that when young people are engaged in their communities and organizations in meaningful ways they are more likely to be civically and philanthropically involved throughout their lives. The struggle for those of us working in the 4-H Youth Development Program, however, is finding, implementing and institutionalizing effective strategies to involve youth. We continually ask ourselves, how do we:

Recognize and foster authentic roles for young people?

Assist young people to prepare for leadership roles in the communities in which they live, learn, work and play?

Guide our 4-H Youth Development staff, volunteers and youth to craft  programs and relationships that foster authentic decision making roles while advancing  community engagement?

The Origins of Our Project
In 1999 we solicited youth participants for the established adult-focused Public Policy Institute (PPI) based on the University of California (UC) Davis campus. PPI was an intense three-day workshop that taught participants how to convene and conduct community forums using National Issues Forums (NIF) methods and materials. Learning alongside adults, the teens successfully managed the pace and program content. But most importantly, participating youth returned home and held a series of highly successful community forums on teen pregnancy that resulted in community mobilization. Not all adult participants accomplished as much.

The program evaluation revealed some participation/learning style differences as well as some assumptions that adults held about young people and young people held about adults. Follow-up research was conducted to help explain these differences and how to structure future workshops to more effectively engage both youth and adults. The dominant finding was that PPI needed to incorporate more interactive learning/teaching and less lecture. When this change was made, both youth and adults became more fully engaged, especially with each other.

Teens continued to populate PPI. In 2002 , 4-H Youth Development state staff and volunteers also participated with the intent of introducing the NIF model at CAL Focus, a long-standing annual teen citizenship program. In 2003, teens attending CAL Focus held forums using the NIF model and acquired the confidence and skills that led them to assume authentic community roles once they returned home.


Community Forums Project
Encouraged by the project’s success, we sought additional opportunities for more youth to acquire and practice forum skills. In 2004 National 4-H Council offered grants for projects that would increase community participation among youth in rural counties. We were awarded funds to train six teams of youth from six rural counties.

The training consisted of two weekend-long events held on the UC Davis campus. The first, held in April 2005 and attended by 27 youth and 11 adults, included activities that built skills in the topic areas of youth-adult partnerships, team building, meeting facilitation, evaluation, and convening and moderating forums. The second training, held in July 2005, focused on analyzing, understanding, and talking about critical community issues. As a condition of participation, each team was required to conduct at least one community forum.

Youth and adults from two groups were contacted one year later and asked what skills they put into practice and the level of success they felt they achieved. These teams were chosen for follow-up because they were still working together and participants could be located. The specific questions we sought to answer were:

What attitudes and behaviors changed as a result of project participation?

What did the participants learn as a result of the project and did they use the skills and/or knowledge elsewhere?

What impact did the project have on their communities?

We used a focus group interview and 28-item survey with one group and just the survey with the other. We followed standard evaluation research methods to collect and analyze both the quantitative and qualitative data. We separated adult and youth responses since we were also interested in the youth-adult relationship and how the two groups worked together. Most importantly, we looked for stories that indicated that the experience enriched the knowledge and skills of participants while connecting them to their communalities.

What We Found
Although our evaluation was small, the results were exciting. Youth reported that they acquired confidence and skills that they were able to use in other facets of their lives. Adults increased their awareness of and appreciation for youth’s capabilities. Youth connected with their communities.

Increased Confidence and Comfort Level
Youth repeatedly said that they gained personal confidence, as well as speaking and listening skills, from their participation. For example, one youth stated that the highlight of the project was “gaining the strength and courage to get up and talk to people, and knowing that your voices would be heard.” Others noted that the forums resulted in increased understanding and respect for a variety of opinions. One youth stated, “We learned how to respect each other’s opinions.”  This was a welcome finding. Youth need confidence in order to go out into their communities and make a difference. They also need to listen, respect the opinions of others and be open to new ideas in order to connect with other community residents.

Skill Acquisition and Application
Group process skills were most often cited as the skills that the participants learned well, used often, and applied to a variety of settings. Youth noted that the ability to keep meetings “on track” while also respecting participants’ opinions was very useful and increased participation. One youth said, “We learned how to respect each other’s opinions. We let them speak and we don’t put them down while they’re speaking. . . “  Youth also stated that their past meetings were disorganized and exceeded time limits but were more efficient and productive when facilitation techniques were used.  Some participants also reported teaching their new skills to youth and adults who did not attend our training and using the skills with other groups and even with their families.        

Improved Youth Adult Relationships
Both youth and adults reported increased respect for one another and youth reported increased respect for their peers. But the greatest shift seemed to be in the adults’ new or heightened awareness that youth can contribute to groups and to their communities. One adult said, “The youth do have good ideas. You have to step back a little bit and let them bring up those ideas, and not call them silly. . .we (adults) are not always right, they have good ideas and we can learn from that.”  Another adult stated, “The empowerment that the kids have, makes me feel really good inside because I can take my kids anywhere and they can handle anything.”

This attitudinal shift was especially gratifying for those of us grappling with adults’ unwillingness to share power, especially decision-making power, with youth in our programs. Our extensive field work and the research literature tells us that when youth-adult partnerships are employed both youth and adults benefit. Our evaluation supported the emerging research.

A Success Story from the Community
While surveys and interviews are important tools for assessing project outcomes, success in the field is even more exciting. One team formed a youth commission, an adjunct advisory body to the Board of Supervisors, with the intent of increasing youth voice in the community. They used their new group process skills to successfully  convene forums on the topic of a skate park, a contentious community issue. They followed with a project in which youth mapped community assets and wrote a guide for their peers on how to become community decision makers. The commission continues to flourish, connecting young people with the community.

Recent Years – It Still Works!
The project was then expanded to include additional rural California counties. We used the same format and curricular materials with the addition of an action plan component. The action plan was added to help teams better identify “hot issue” topics that would compel community members to come together to discuss issues. Similar increases in confidence and process skill acquisition in the youth were documented.

 In 2006, we provided leadership to the development of a National 4-H community participation curriculum that we taught to youth-adult teams from 16 states. In-depth evaluations showed that the teens increased their skills in 15 leadership areas and were motivated to serve on community committees. In their project summary, National 4-H Council highlighted many success stories. For example, they described Amanda, a youth who said she first became interested in the project as “something to do” but is now passionate about community leadership.

Challenges of the Project
The implementation of community forum projects comes with challenges. By far the greatest struggle is to motivate teams to return to their communities and immediately convene and moderate  a forum. We found that the longer the teams wait to convene forums, the increased likelihood that their confidence will erode and the project will be derailed. We continue to grapple with how to help them implement their plans before losing momentum.  

 What Next?
The California 4-H Foundation awarded us funds to implement the project in 2008 with teams of youth and adults from San Francisco Bay Area urban and suburban communities. We look forward to providing youth and adults with additional opportunities to work collaboratively with one another and members of their communities.  

MacNeil, C. (2006). Bridging generations: Applying “adult” leadership theories to youth leadership development. New Directions for Youth Development. 109(March 2006). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Murdock, S. & Paterson, C. (2002). Youth and adults learning together: Setting up for success. Journal of Extension [On-line], 40(3). Available at:

Takanishi, R.  (1993). Changing views of adolescence in contemporary society. In R. Takanishi (Ed.) Adolescence in the 1990s:  Risk and Opportunity.  New York:  Teachers College Press.

Zeldin, S., Camino, L., & Calvert, M. (2003). Toward an understanding of youth in community governance: Policy priorities and research directions. Social Policy Report. 17(3): 3-6.

Zeldin, S., Camino, L. & Mook, C. (2005). The adoption of innovation in youth organizations: Creating the conditions for youth-adult partnerships. Journal of Community Psychology. 33(1):  121-135.

The Authors:
Shelley Murdock, Contra Costa County, and Carole Paterson, Solano County, are 4-H Youth Development Advisors with the University of California Cooperative Extension. Both have extensive field experience working with and mentoring teens; have conducted numerous applied research projects on adolescent issues; and have master degrees in non-formal education.

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