Inviting Young People to the Table: Building an Environment for Positive Social Change

Throughout recent history, not only in the Recovery Community, but in all aspects of social and business environments, often there are questions asked such as “How do we actively engage a younger population?”, “What do we do to build a stronger and more active youth community?, and the most common, “What do youth want?”. These are questions that I have heard many times, and it thrills me every time the very words are uttered by an organization or coalition that is beginning to look at the much larger picture. In asking, the entity is not only realizing that the classic sense of wellness is much larger, on a continuum so to speak, but also that life (in terms of age and social demographics) is on a continuum as well. To provide a true 360-degree view of wellness and recovery, every social dynamic has to be actively engaged and participatory in their own wellbeing. While it is exciting to know that the questions are being asked, isn’t it a little disconcerting that they are still being asked over and over again? Is something not working? Are the answers not there? The real point that should be in your minds is are we asking the right questions to the right people? Are the young people sitting in as active participants in the discussions where these conversations are taking place?

Often times you will find that the last two questions poised will be answered with a resounding no. Not because these entities in question are maliciously seeking to ignore and invite young people to the conversation, but rather there is a perpetuity that exists in trying to engage a young population, that is not previously engaged at all. The questions are asked with the best intentions, but if a real consumer is not there to answer with thoughtful insight, then how can a reasonable solution be found? Simply put, it cannot. Therefore, the initial questions that need to be asked by organizations attempting to engage a young adult population, is how can we target a select group of young advocates, invite them into our organization, and use them to envision a strategic plan for active engagement among their population. Too often, whether stuck in the belief that “they” know best, or simply because it has hard to let go, leaders in organizations refuse to see that they have to give to receive. This basic principle, both in spirituality and in business, is paramount to successful engagement of previously unengaged populations.

Once it can be agreed that building a strategic engagement plan is best done with all parties present, then it is time to look at how do we overcome the barriers that often inhibit getting a young adult into the organization.

Not exclusively, but commonly in today’s present landscape, when the topic of youth and young adults come up the immediate response is social media and digital marketing. Though not a wrong response, imagine the following: Would it be mildly insulting to you, as an individual, to be correlated with a social platform alone? For most of us that answer would be yes. As individuals, young and old, affluent and poor, we are much more than our social interactions. We are our education, our experiences, our emotions, our skills, our recovery, our friends, our families, and much more. To compartmentalize young adults into a reference that only includes social media, is not realizing their full potential. These individuals, whom we work with on a daily basis, whom we are ourselves, have the professional experience, articulate ability, and emotional depth that rivals the employees of Fortune 500 companies around the country; they have lived through years of active addiction and mental health disorders, but more importantly have found long-term recovery, and have lived to tell that story. These individuals bring years of experience and magnitude that many think doesn’t exist. For a simple test, go and listen to a 20-something year old tell his or her recovery story, visit with them and talk about their thoughts on social context of long-term recovery, mental health disparities, and listen to what they have to say. This is not feedback that you will find every day on Facebook and Twitter, but it is the feelings, experience, and stories that these young adults have inside them. This passion is the untapped resource that you find when inviting young adults to the table. This passion is what fuels your organization strategic engagement plan. Passion breeds passion in any industry, and even more so in the mental health and behavioral fields. Long-term recovery breeds long-term recovery. Engagement breeds engagement.

When we begin to see the young adult population as peers, as professionals, as a combined concentration of life and experience, rather than a compartmentalized vision, we find that inviting them to the table is a much easier task; one that is beneficial not only to them, but to your organization. If our perception of young adults changes, not only do we find advocates that we so desperately need, but we also realize that there are literally millions of them in our communities. We simply have to look. Change your perceptions, find your young adult advocate, and change the future of your organizations engagement and effectiveness for the better.

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