Engaging youth is all about giving young people a voice; to have them feel respected, appreciated and part of a community. It’s about building on their strengths, helping them grow their talents and confidence and guiding them to use their skills to make positive, healthy decisions.

“When adults create programs for young people, it’s just that - adults creating what they think kids would like, “ says Lilian Hill, who founded and runs youth programs for Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture (HTP) on the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona. “But when young people can be a part of creating something for their peers, it’s more successful over the long run and they learn to help themselves.”

Hill speaks from experience: her work began when she was part of the youth community. At 16, she started an after-school ecology club at Hopi High School where students built and learned to manage a greenhouse.  In college, she helped form the Black Mesa Water Coalition and began a project that eventually grew into the nonprofit organization HTP that teaches youth about permaculture, traditional farming and leadership skills.  It engages youth in a variety of ways.

“I tell people today to look at models of other programs to see what’s working,” says Hill. “But we didn’t do it that way. We started as young people, working with young people, mostly in our family. We looked at the needs, issues (like suicide rates and obesity) and started to focus on some of those issues. We started from scratch.”

  • Consider family relationships and traditional kinships. Look within your own extended family to find people who want to work with others.
  • Identify students recommended by teachers and community members. Get them together to start organizing and learning leadership skills.
  • Let young people guide their work and learn the power of their voices. Tap their creativity and energy, help them identify and build on strengths.
  • Look at models of what other Native communities are doing. Many have websites and Facebook pages. Tohono O’odham Community Action, Dream of Wild Health, and Notah Begay III Foundation all have health and wellness initiatives.
  • Start small!