Why Teen Voice Matters

Tiffany Thornton, BGCA’s Senior Director of Youth Development Services, brings a powerful story of lifting teen voice today.

Our nation has been surrounded by images of protests, calls for change and an increased awareness of the prevalence of bias, injustice and systematic racism. The teens at the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis in Oregon decided to amplify their powerful voices and lead a conversation that shed light on the racism they experienced and how they continue to strive to use their voice to make change.

Teen Voice in Corvallis

When the world seemingly stood still, stunned by the footage of the murder of George Floyd, the teens at the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis were grappling with their own personal reality of the racism they endured on any given day. Four of them, Neveah, Kayla, Josiah, Malik, along with their peers rallied together with the support of their Club staff  to collectively voice their frustrations and tell their authentic and heart wrenching stories as a part of the “Addressing Racism Through Teen Voice” event. During the live-streamed event, teens shared their stories of being discriminated against in their community because of their race or ethnicity. These courageous and honest conversations are an example of how staff and adults should first listen to their youth and teens and then guide them in how to bravely use their stories and voices to address pressing issues and advocate for change.

Because we shouldn’t talk about teen voice without actually hearing from teens, we are honored to share excerpts from the BGC Corvallis teens themselves. When I say these words are powerful? See and hear for yourself.

Here are some other words from the teens:

Neveah’s Story

“I am biracial and growing up I didn’t fit in with white kids because I was too black, and I didn’t fit in with black kids because I was too white, so I always felt like an outcast. I was ashamed of who I was and felt lost. When I moved to Corvallis, I started playing volleyball at the Boys & Girls Club and slowly started to feel like I belong. Now in my senior year, I have started to embrace being black, being powerful and being intelligent. I am now proud to be black and I am proud to be attending the University of Portland on a volleyball scholarship next Fall.”

Kayla’s Advice

“My advice to other teens who have had to deal with racism is you can ignore the racism towards you and ignore those people. At the end of the day, you come home and you are still in your body. You can educate yourself and tell yourself that you are important and beautiful and not allow any negative words from others to impact you. I tell myself that I am beautiful. I tell myself that I have Black Girl Magic!”

Josiah’s Story

“It was in 6th grade when I first started to see more kids of color and was able to make a couple of friends. One day in math class, there was this kid in one of my group projects, a white student, and when we were trying to pick roles for the project one role was to be the person to get items for the table and the white kid said “Good, now you are the slave”. I was just sat there surprised.”

Malik’s Advice

“My advice to everyone is that we need to treat everyone the same. White people need to know what people of color are going through by respecting the fact that we are all humans, and everyone should respect everyone.”

Why You Should Incorporate Teen Voice Into Your Program

Incorporating youth and teen voice is foundational to having a strong program. Youth and teens want experiences they can shape and call their own. “Youth learn how to make good choices by making choices, not by following directions,” according to education expert Alfie Kohn. We give young people the opportunity to make choices and try new things when we give them leadership opportunities and input.

When we asked Camila Ballardo, Teen Center Coordinator from the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis, how they learned to authentically incorporate input from their teens, she said that staff at the Club use the framework of Youth Voice from the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. She gave some wise advice for other Club staff:

“I would highly recommend that other organizations get trained on the Youth Voice Method and make the investment to shift program design and delivery to these principles. This approach allows us to more easily measure our outcomes and teaches staff how to incorporate youth voice. Clubs must be ready to be uncomfortable, take some risk, and be willing to do everything different! And most importantly, it requires support from the CEO down for successful implementation. Youth Voice must be baked into the Organization’s DNA.”

Incorporating youth voice can happen by asking youth and teens for input about a program, providing opportunities for choice and ultimately lead to a true adult and youth partnership in programs and experiences. Youth voice can:

  • Build youth motivation. When youth are given true decision-making opportunities, they are more likely to experience a sense of ownership, engage fully in the program and come back for more.
  • Promote learning and self-direction. Giving young people opportunities to make decisions that matter, encourage them to explore their interests, participate as members and leaders and ultimately become stronger decision makers in life outside the Club.
  • Improve programs and communities. The benefits of youth and teen voice are not limited to youth, as adults, programs and communities benefit as well. When programs involve youth voice, adult views of youth can be more positive, adults’ commitment and energy levels can increase, adults can feel more competent as program leaders and programs can become more connected to youth.

Boys & Girls Club staff can learn more about Youth Voice by taking the online class in Spillett Leadership University. Locate it by logging in with your BGCA.net account and then searching “Youth Voice.” For more ideas, check out the Teens tag on the ClubX Blog. 

You can watch the entire BGC Corvallis panel event on Youtube here: Addressing Racism Through Youth Voice. A special thanks to Helen Higgins, CEO and Casey Higgins, Teen Center Director of the Boys & Girls Club of Corvallis!

How have you incorporated youth voice into programming at your Club? What are your best tips for working with teens? Share with us in the comments, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email ClubXBlog@bgca.org and your ideas may be in a future ClubX Blog post!


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