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Supporting Young Leaders to Create Meaningful Change in Their Communities

Supporting Young Leaders to Create Meaningful Change in Their Communities

By Leslie Ferreira, MPA | August 14, 2019
Training and Outreach Manager, ETR

You’ve heard the adage, “Youth are leaders of tomorrow.” But truthfully, young people are leaders today. Our youth are stepping into their power like never before and demanding the space to make their voices heard. As adults, it’s our responsibility—and our privilege—to seek, validate and lift their voices in tangible and genuine ways.

For the past 20 years, I have worked with youth advocates in programs that amplify their voices against tobacco industry predatory targeting. Like others who have worked in these kinds of programs, I have seen youth who are talented, powerful and passionate.

They are leading their generation, and generations to come, toward a healthier, more compassionate and successful world. Our young leaders have unique insight into the issues their communities are experiencing—public health, economic, social justice, education, environmental. Decision-makers at all levels need to be authentically seeking, understanding, nurturing and honoring young people’s insights.

Youth are important stakeholders in our communities. They can benefit from well-designed rules, regulations, policies and laws. They also suffer disproportionately when rules are not grounded in the realities of youth lives. It is tragic, then, that most often, laws and regulations are enacted without youth input, and without the benefit of their unique, powerful perspectives.

Adults Can Provide Support for Youth-Driven Leadership

How can we support young leaders to create meaningful change in their communities? It starts with addressing and disrupting adultism.

Adultism is bias that favors adults, and discriminates against youth, and serves to keep adult power intact. We all experienced adultism as young people. This is one of life’s realities. And all adults will be adultist at some point, even if that is not their intention.

Exploring how we, and our young people, are affected by adultism, and how our institutions can either promote or disempower adultism, helps us shift these dynamics. This allows us to be more effective allies and focus our efforts on fueling young people’s civic participation.

For an excellent discussion about disputing adultism, check out this Tedx Talk by Heather Kennedy.


The systematic subordination of young people, who have relatively little social power, restricted access to the goods and services, and denial of access to participation in the economic and political life.

Heather Kennedy

Authentic Youth Engagement

Authentic youth engagement recognizes young people’s right to participate in decisions that impact them. It acknowledges the great skills and strengths they contribute to their communities. It views young people as valued stakeholders in creating effective and inclusive policies, programs and environments.

Diagram of Harts Ladder of ParticipationI like to use the framework in Hart’s Ladder of Participation. It encourages youth and adults to examine why and how young people participate throughout their communities. This visual representation offers a deeper examination with tangible examples and it’s been helpful to me in my own thinking and work.

A key component of positive youth development is effectively preparing our young people to advocate for themselves, their peers, their family and their community. This also happens to be Standard 8 in the National Health Education Standards. Empowering our young people through advocacy—especially marginalized youth—affirms that their voices and experiences are valid and important. The opportunity to engage in activism can result in positive, lasting change.

Taking Down Tobacco

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, with the support of the CVS Health Foundation, and with the insight of young people and adult allies across the country, developed the Taking Down Tobacco online advocacy training program. This free resource provides the training, tools and a platform for youth leaders to raise their voices and have them heard. They can educate and mobilize their peers and urge school, community, state and national decision-makers to take action.

The three-time award winning Taking Down Tobacco has recently migrated to ETR. The training program allows youth to build their tobacco prevention knowledge and community health advocacy skillset through a self-paced, intuitive, mobile-friendly platform that is accessible 24/7. Each of the advanced training courses includes specific, transferrable skills tailored to the training topic, along with experiential learning opportunities.

Youth working together on a project, excited about the work.Learners are supported and rewarded when they take direct advocacy action. The online training platform provides efficient ways to track youth engagement and reach, evaluate knowledge retention and confidence-building, communicate with learners, provide competition-based incentives for participation, and build an online community of youth leaders that can be activated for state and federal action.

Throughout history, young people have lead movements and taken action to improve their lives and their communities. Adult allies (or, if you’re willing, accomplices), have been right by their side as equitable partners, advocating, supporting and being inspired. We have a current generation of young leaders who need us not to tokenize or marginalize, but to recognize, value and engage with them as formidable agents of change.


Leslie Ferreira, MPA, is Training and Outreach Manager for the award-winning Taking Down Tobacco training program at ETR. The program is funded by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and sponsored by the CVS Health Foundation. Ms. Ferreira can be reached at

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