The Importance of Giving Youth an Authentic Voice

By Adrienne Diercks, Executive Director of Project Success


The voice of youth. It’s the authentic expression of an entire generation’s wants, needs and hopes for the future, and one that should be encouraged to grow in its expression and be heard by the entire community.

A foundation of our work at Project SUCCESS is the belief and understanding that young people have within themselves the power and ability to create the future they desire.

Young people are strong, passionate and motivated. With the right inspiration, tools and guidance, they’re able to meet the challenges before them with confidence, and set and achieve their goals. They want to be included and valued; to have their opinions heard and considered. They want to be part of the solution to the challenges our community faces. And, most importantly, young people want and need to define and create their own success.

How often do we truly empower our youth? Not often enough. Yet, to be successful in school and in life, actively working to empower their voice is critical. According to the Search Institute’s 2010 national study on youth motivation, Teen Voice 2010, youth that are given the time and space to explore their passions and talents are more likely to:

  • Have a sense of purpose
  • Be socially competent and physically healthy
  • Volunteer to help others
  • Have higher grades in school and better attendance

The Search Institute’s research also proves that developmental relationships with caring adults help young people succeed. They are more likely to get better grades, have higher aspirations for the future and participate in college- preparatory activities more frequently.

Imagine the possibilities. If young people are provided with the proper support to explore their goals from a young age, they could overcome all obstacles and achieve the future they envision. Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with thousands of young people in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools, and I have seen the power of this approach. When we give young people the tools, encouragement, time and autonomy to explore their passions without judgment, they can envision real possibility for the futures and success in their lives.

Our youth face unprecedented challenges due to poverty and inequality, a breakdown of support systems, and high mobility rates. On many fronts, we are in trouble: making sure that all of our young people are prepared to graduate from high school, have the education they need to be out in the world, and have the life-skills and confidence they need to overcome future challenges.

As reported in district-wide surveys, Minnesota ninth graders said their greatest needs were for more help in planning their futures and identifying their interests and abilities. Yet, Minnesota students face an average student-to-counselor ratio of nearly 800:1. This imbalance is more than triple the ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association and places Minnesota forty-eighth in the nation (a statistic which, perhaps not coincidentally, corresponds to our overall achievement gap).

But, there are important things we can and must do to overcome these challenges and support our youth:

We must unequivocally believe in the power and potential of every single child in our communities. We must believe, act and talk in a way that shows our young people that each of them is important, and we assume and expect them to work hard and focus on success in adulthood – becoming the person they are meant to be.

We must listen to our youth and hear what they know to be true about themselves and in their lives. Young people have within themselves the power and ability to create the futures they desire. Meeting the challenges they face while navigating their way into adulthood takes time. We must give our youth the tools, guidance and long-term support to enable them to create the futures they envision for themselves.

Most importantly, we must authentically model these behaviors with and for the youth we serve and for the broader community. Together we have tremendous power to change the conversation about youth and help all young people find success, but we need to act boldly together to make this happen.

As we move forward on this crucial endeavor with our Generation Next partners, we need to listen to young people, hear and acknowledge their authentic voice, and help them achieve their goals. Let us truly empower our youth to be the change they wish to see.

Adrienne Diercks
Founder and Executive Director


SIF 2015