“Nothing about us, without us,” is a rallying cry that originated in the disability rights movement, but it has been widely adopted by young people who have been in foster care. The stakes are high. “One person frames your life before a court, and a couple of people decide where you live,” says Sixto Cancel about his experience with the system. Cancel remembers just how little say he had in his own future and how that made him feel. “Your life goes on a whole [unwanted] trajectory because someone didn’t ask you [what you needed],” Cancel says.

Ensuring that young people have a say in their futures—not just as individuals, but collectively regarding decisions about child welfare policy and practice—is a goal of Youth Thrive (YT), an initiative of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) focused on youth well-being. CSSP staff wanted to create a bold initiative to address long-entrenched practices in child welfare systems around the country. To do so, CSSP knew it would have to draw on not only current research about adolescent development and systems change, but also the experiences and expertise of young people themselves. Cancel was one among many young people with experience in foster care who helped develop and implement the effort.

How might youth and young adults with experience in foster care play an integral role in an initiative like this? The challenges are considerable. Typically, adults have power and young people do not. Adults in human-services organizations have experience deliberating changes in policies and practices, while young people usually do not. Meetings are commonly held during hours when young people are likely to be in school or at a job, making it difficult for them to participate. Staff members are paid for their time, while youth generally are not. Perhaps most significantly, adults often dismiss the value of listening to young people about what they want and need. Given these constraints, how can organizations ensure that the participation of youth and young adults is more than tokenism?

Read the full article about youth leadership by Steven D. Cohen, Leonard Burton and Elliott Hinkle at Stanford Social Innovation Review.