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Youth Voice Is Becoming a Priority in Federal Policy and Practice

March 22, 2024

The Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA) is an out-of-school time network, operating as part of Nashville Public Library, that provides funding and support for programs to increase youths’ equitable access to out-of-school time learning experiences that help youth thrive and develop to their full potential. One of the ways that we engage with youth directly is empowering them through initiatives that cultivate their leadership and life skills. Through NAZA’s Youth In Action! (YIA) youth leadership initiative, young people have the opportunity to make a difference in their community through civic engagement and advocacy. One major focus of the work that YIA youth leaders carry out is educating adults on the importance of involving youth when making decisions that affect them. Youth leaders have met with elected officials, school leadership, and presented at national conferences about what youth are looking for in their schools and out-of-school time programs, how to amplify youth voices, and the importance of involving youth in decision-making.

The abundance of scientific literature and a number of international policies and commitments demonstrate that over the past decades, policy makers and practitioners in the US and globally have increasingly recognized the importance of meaningful youth voice and participation in decisions that affect them. This is particularly true for the sectors where adult stakeholders are responsible for successfully engaging young people, such as education, environmental protection, safety and other national or local governance branches and community-based programs relevant to youth. Youth participation can be referred to as youth voice, advising, governance, leadership, advocacy, or civic engagement, but the essence is the same – creating an opportunity and space for youth to share their expertise, their choices and influence decisions that directly affect them as they grow up. It must be noted that recognizing the importance of youth voice is not enough. Inviting them to the adult-dominated meetings is also not enough. Governments, organizations and systems should create conditions and institutionalize policies and practices of consistent and meaningful youth participation.

We were thrilled to learn that the White House had initiated a national youth summit to address the most pressing issues for youth in 2024. In February 2024 a youth team member of Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA), Itzel, traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of Every Hour Counts to join fellow youth and members of the Biden-Harris administration to participate in the interagency Youth Policy Summit: Cultivating Possibilities. The conference brought together nearly 90 youth and members of several agencies including the U.S. Departments of Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice to engage in discussion around the issues that affect young people and how federal policies and programs can support youth and create conditions where they can thrive.

The summit created a safe space for youth to engage in discussions about different topics such as student loan debt relief, access to mental health support, and gun control,” says Itzel. “Not only was a safe space created, but we got to talk to and listen to officials from different departments, so it created a sense that we were actually getting listened to. I believe summits like this one do help shape the future of the problems youth are currently facing, as youths’ voices are being heard.” She attended the Youth Policy Summit as part of Every Hour Counts, a national network of intermediaries dedicated to advancing out-of-school time systems. Nashville was one of the three cities invited as part of this network.

Nashville has a 15-year record of convening the Mayor’s Youth Council as a local youth participation mechanism affiliated with the local government. The mission of the Mayor’s Youth Council is to contribute to the local government policies, practices and decisions in issues that impact youth and connecting the young generation of Nashville and their needs to the city government.

Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA), a city-wide intermediary unit as part of the city government (Nashville Public Library) that funds afterschool and summer programs focusing on holistic youth development, instituted the youth leadership in 2019 through hiring the first high school staff member, Allie, who was tasked with creating an authentic youth leadership model that would enable engaging large number of youths across middle schools that we invested in. The Youth In Action! model enables pairing high school youth with middle schoolers to generate project ideas and implement those projects to improve their school, afterschool program or engage in community service projects. Itzel became involved in NAZA’s Youth In Action! youth leadership initiative as a high school volunteer and continues to work to advance youth voice and youth leadership as part of NAZA. Itzel spent time in high school supporting middle school youth at NAZA partner sites in creating their own impactful projects, which range from book benches, courtyard beautification, serving the unhoused, etc.

In 2022, Nashville was selected as one of six cities across the county to participate in the Powered by Youth Voice initiative with Every Hour Counts which enabled creating a youth research and advocacy team working to shift the future direction of afterschool in our city. This project enabled youth’s access to national audiences in large conferences, including highest level federal administration and elected officials to speak about the issues facing youth and how to involve youth in decision-making. Itzel was one of the group members who had an opportunity to raise her voice for the matters important to youth in multiple national convenings.

If you are interested in learning more about NAZA’s Youth In Action! youth leadership initiative, visit

Guest writer is Rachel Pendragon, Communications & Events Manager for the Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA)


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