From school government to local government, community programs to TikTok, today’s young people are no longer just joining conversations – they’re leading them. And as more and more young people, like Greta Thunberg, Simone Biles, David Hogg, Naomi Osaka, etc., speak up from podiums and social media platforms, a generation is recognizing the power of their voice.
Self-advocacy is the action of representing yourself or your views and interests. For some, life-changing experiences activate passions that shape the trajectory of their lives and their advocacy for issues they’re passionate about.
But, when provided with the foundation of a safe environment, trusted mentors and opportunities to engage, all young people can be empowered to develop the skills they need to become self-advocates and elevate their voices.
There are many benefits to young people learning to be self-advocates. They understand their needs and concerns and feel empowered to ask for help when they need it. They recognize their personal worth and speak up on behalf of their work and contributions. They believe in their values and vocalize what they stand for and what they do not, often standing up for others or inspiring others to join a cause. They can say “no” to things that aren’t right for them, and “yes” to opportunities and experiences that might benefit them. And their peers, as well as adults, recognize their leadership and influence as they contribute important perspectives.
Self-advocates also collect information that pertains to them so that they can make decisions about their lives. They are active players in determining what they need to succeed, what isn’t helping them on their journeys and what they aspire to next. Simply put – they’re in the driver’s seat.
Here are four ways to help the young people in your life become a self-advocate.
Discuss the art of “speaking up.” Ask your kid or teen who they admire for speaking up, and why. Start a conversation about what they feel comfortable speaking up about – whether it’s raising their hand to ask a question in class, or standing up against peer pressure, or tackling an issue at school (or beyond) that they want to see addressed. If they’re not comfortable speaking up, explore why and take small steps to grow that confidence.
Encourage and act on youth input. When you ask for input from a young person, act on it. Seeing their suggestions come to life in a meaningful way at home, school or at the Club goes a long way in building their confidence in how their thoughts and suggestions can influence the world around them.
Model self-advocacy. When learning to speak up, ask for things or represent their opinions, kids (and many adults) can be blunt and their attempt can backfire. Model both self-advocacy and advocacy at home, school or the Club in a respectful, collaborative way so that young people understand how they say things can matter just as much as what they say. This may mean inviting the young person in your life to tag along when participating in a school board meeting to see you advocate for an issue you believe in, or sharing a time when you spoke up for yourself and how you approached it.
Be open about consequences and failure. Part of being a self-advocate is also knowing sometimes you don’t get the result you were looking for. There will be times when their effort does not succeed, they hear a “no” or they don’t voice things in a constructive way. Be their partner in understanding that result and what next steps look like. If it’s a situation where they voiced things in an unconstructive way, can they address it and rephrase their request? If it’s a situation where their suggestion wasn’t taken, do they understand why and can accept that decision?
Today’s young people have more opportunities than ever to express themselves and elevate their voices on what matters to them. Helping them build the skills to use self-advocacy in productive ways will ensure that when the time comes, they’re ready to speak up.
Boys & Girls Clubs help millions of young people each year develop the skills to stand up for what they think is right and elevate their voices. Learn how to get involved with Boys & Girls Clubs of America.