Editor’s note: Communities possess firsthand knowledge of their own needs, challenges, and opportunities. When their voices are considered in funding decisions, the resulting initiatives and projects are more likely to be relevant and responsive to the actual needs on the ground. The Capital Collaborative by Camelback Ventures’ works with funders to center community voices in their funding practices. This practice of inclusivity is one that closely aligns with Camelback’s mission and vision and in how the organization selects participants (grantees) for its Camelback Fellowship. The intensive 15-week accelerator supports undervalued entrepreneurs across the country. Camelback continues to model community centered approaches in its funding practices and this month’s Giving Compass guest contributor hopes readers will glean insights and inspiration from one of the organization’s most recent experimental approaches centered around uplifting youth voices.

In a time characterized by youth-led global political movements advocating for issues that directly impact their future, such as gun control and climate change, the need to include youth voices in decision-making has become more pressing than ever. Recognizing this imperative, the Search & Align team at Camelback Ventures embarked on an experiment to integrate youth perspectives into our Fellowship selection process through the creation of the Youth Leadership Award (YLA). We partnered with the Youth Power Coalition, a youth-led organization building intergenerational movements, to develop our youth engagement strategy. It is our hope that by sharing Camelback's journey to including youth voices meaningfully, we can inspire and inform other funders' practices.

The YLA was conceived as an extension of our work to incorporate participatory decision-making into our organizational practices. Namely, we had already included Camelback alumni as majority influencers in Camelback Fellowship class selection. As we began to think more expansively about other communities impacted by Camelback’s work -- particularly in the education sector -- we recognized young people as a necessary audience for meaningful participation. Guided by four core principles — Equity, Innovation, Leadership Development, and Community — our youth engagement strategy reinforces a framework that upholds the belief that young individuals most affected by inequity hold invaluable insights and solutions. Our aspiration was to involve young people as essential decision-makers, not just passive recipients of programs.

The journey to get to the inaugural YLA is rooted in historical context and inspiration from the Youth Engagement Ladder. First, Camelback Ventures piloted a Youth Voice Focus Group, where young participants provided feedback on Fellowship Finalists that then supported our decision-making. This pilot illuminated the potential of incorporating youth perspectives and guided the subsequent evolution of the YLA. Through deliberate mapping of power dynamics and collaborative idea generation, Camelback Ventures and the Youth Power Coalition team crafted a strategy that would integrate youth power and decision-making more comprehensively.

From the lessons learned from the pilot, we launched the Youth Leadership Award. We onboarded five youth evaluators between 14 and 20 years old and who were interested in entrepreneurship, education, and technology. We also explicitly prioritized interest from Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, and/or non-binary folx as that reflects our commitments to supporting marginalized entrepreneurs. YLA Evaluators, together with Fellowship evaluators and the YLA design team, created a definition of Youth Leadership and competencies related to youth leadership.

We defined Youth Leadership as prioritizing youth who are proximate to injustice to co-create solutions that make a difference and tell the stories of young people. 

The youth evaluators independently reviewed applications, scored them based on the pictured competencies, calibrated with adult advisors, and then collaboratively decided on awardees in a synchronous deliberation session -- all hosted virtually. In the end, three entrepreneurs were awarded a $500 Youth Leadership award microgrant. Most notably, Aiyeshia Hudson-Wong and her venture, Liberation Journeys, were also selected as a Camelback Fellow the year following her selection as a YLA awardee. Liberation Journeys partners with young people and school communities to co-design liberatory learning experiences, affirm students’ global Black identity, and dismantle anti-Black racism in schools.

We heard from both youth and adult participants how meaningful the experience was in connecting young people's insights to tangible change. Ayushi Mohanty, a YLA youth evaluator, speaks of this transformation: "Camelback Ventures has a vision of accentuating underrepresented voices and takes on the responsibility of incorporating the power of youth voices within their organization." 

Marvin Pierre, an adult evaluator for the YLA, echoes this sentiment, acknowledging the pioneering nature of Camelback Ventures' approach. "Giving young people the opportunity to be recognized for their thoughts and ideas is trailblazing," he remarks, highlighting the significance of this endeavor in empowering the voices of tomorrow's leaders.

We encourage other capital allocators and resource holders to consider opportunities for youth engagement in their practices. In a world where young activists are driving important conversations, Camelback Ventures' Youth Leadership Award has identified leaders, ventures, and communities that give us hope for the next generation. 

The Capital Collaborative by Camelback Ventures works with white funders and social impact investors who want to deepen their individual and organizational commitment to racial and gender equity in philanthropy — but may not know how. You can learn more about how to get involved by submitting an interest form for the Capital Collaborative’s next cohort or signing up for the newsletter.