How to engage and work with young people

Written by James Unegbu, Leadership Initiative for Youth Empowerment (LIFE), Nigeria

What benefits have you seen of working with young people?

Young people, generally people aged 35 and under, are a dynamic group with different interests, needs and challenges. From our experience in LIFE, working with this segment of the population has many benefits as youth represents a critical intervention point for the individual and the broader society. Some specific benefits include, but are not limited to:

  • Encouraging active citizenship: Working with young people engages them in civic activism and community philanthropy. This builds stronger communities.
  • Reducing anti-social behaviour: Engaging young people in enjoyable activities with their peers helps to discourage anti-social behaviour and provides opportunities for personal and social development.
  • Encouraging education and employment: Reduces cases of young people not attending school, employment or training.
  • Access to social capital: Young people possess abundant social capital. They are connected to their peers and to other social structures existing in the community. As a result, working with young people enables us to tap into the social structure of a community.

Are there any challenges that you have encountered when working with young people?

In our work with young people, we have encountered the following challenges:

  • Lack of autonomy: Since young people are still under the protection of parents or guardians, there are limits to their decision-making ability. For example, they cannot freely decide to access certain SRH services such as family planning products or abortion services without the approval of parents.
  • Peer influence: We have learnt from our work with young people to respect the influence that peers have on each other. For example, while working with a mixed group of drug users, we found that they had the most relapses whenever they interacted with peers outside the programme.
  • Youth mobility: A major challenge we have recorded whilst working with young people is the high rates of mobility. Due to their stage of development, young people often get engaged in activities that may necessitate their movement to a new location or may affect their ability to continue participating in programmes. This is especially difficult when they have exhibited great potential and play active roles in programme implementation.

How did you solve these challenges? What changes did you make?

To deal with the identified problems we have adopted several strategies, such as:

  • Sustained partnership with adults: We broadened our programme to include partnership with adults. This adult partnership involved advocacy with adult-led structures (such as religious and educational institutions, traditional ruling councils etc.) and significant adult participation in LIFE-organised programmes. For example, involving adults in the community dialogues and events organised around international days of action on human rights and sexual and reproductive health were very effective.
  • Build a critical mass: We found that to effectively counter negative peer influence, we needed to increase the number of young people we trained and sensitised. In other words, we had to deepen our reach within our host communities. Specifically, we set out to work through structures with large numbers of young people i.e. school, religious organisations and vocational training institutions.
  • Youth ownership of programme planning: we found engaging young people within their social structures at programme inception ensured that they are engaged with programme activities and there is sustainability. For example, when activities are planned with young people in school, we found that as the older youths left the school environment, they transferred their skills and knowledge to younger members of their schools. This has ensured that at all times the school and the youths themselves exert ownership for programme activities. This strategy was also reinforced through a regular training and rotational involvement plan.  

What did you achieve?

By applying the above strategies, we yielded two key results and learnings:

  • Firstly, we were able to maintain a constant supply and active engagement of young people in the implementation of our interventions. As a result, we have been able to work with over 60,000 young people in just 5 years.
  • Secondly, we have been able to effectively deliver project results and sustain them even after the project’s lifespan. For example, in a project on access to SRHR services and treatment for vulnerable young persons, we produced a 30% increase in access in 10 months. This was a year-on-year improvement over the previous 2 years. This result was produced with the active involvement of over 800 young people.

What have you learnt from your experiences, and what would you advise other organisations working with youth to do?

Create a clear beginning, middle and end to your programme so that there will be a complete creative process.  In our work with young people, we have found that we get the best results when our engagement is clearly defined. For example, our youth-development programmes commence with an opening ceremony where the parents and guardians attend to get an overview of the programme. Next, we have a mid-programme evaluation meeting where young people are provided feedback on their performance and they also get to identify areas the programme can improve. Then there is a formal close-out ceremony where the young people graduate. Graduates then have the option to enroll as volunteers. By applying the above methodology, we have found that the young people are best able to grow and develop, apply life-skills.

We have also learnt that, without the support and engagement of adults the aim of the project and activities may be misunderstood, resulting in potential damage to the project’s progress.  There was a time a young female participant in our programme got pregnant and sought an unsafe abortion that almost resulted in the loss of her life. This incident gave rise to a misconception that the LIFE programme provides young people with access to un-safe abortion services, and as result there was an active movement from adults to restrict youth participation in our programme.  It took close to two years of advocacy work and obtaining statements from the girl’s family before we could recommence the SRHR component of our work. The two years was valuable time lost, which would otherwise have been used for direct programme delivery.

What are your tips for someone working with young people?

  • Set an informal contract at the beginning of the work. This will include timetables and time keeping, behaviour and language. This is worked out in partnership so that everyone is on board
  • Create a clear beginning, middle and end to your programme
  • Give youths creative control to facilitate their learning and do not take over
  • Do not expect the same level of result or impact from all participants in the programme. Young people are not homogenous. Embrace diversity
  • Celebrate youth performance with a certificate, screening or event at the end of the process. This will build esteem and encourage retention
  • Adult-partnership is an essential component of any intervention working with young people

James Unegbu, Leadership Initiative for Youth Empowerment (LIFE), Nigeria

James Unegbu is a youth-development and gender activist, with over 17 years’ experience. He has provided programme support to several organisations in Nigeria, including Community Life Project, Family Health International, Women’s Rights and Health Project and Stop AIDS Organisation. James currently serves as a Programme Manager with Leadership Initiative for Youth Empowerment (LIFE), where he designs and implements youth-development programmes on human rights, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and peace-building. He also supports the organisation in project management and fundraising.