Youth Organizing


“Two basic concepts drive the empowerment of youth: relationship building and valuing the process over product.”

Empowering Youth: How to Encourage Young Leaders to Do Great Things by Kelly Curtis MS

youth organizing philosophy

Lessons learned from over twenty years of antiviolence public health and movement work tell us that relationship building and a focus on process are foundational to any successful organizing effort. Virginia’s Guidelines for the Primary Prevention of Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence describes this further:

In many ways, primary prevention work is identical to the social change work originally envisioned by the anti-sexual and intimate partner violence (SV/IPV) movements: encouraging new partnerships in communities, energizing people to organize against the root causes of SV/IPV, and connecting with underserved and marginalized groups. Indeed, it has been noted that the best SV/IPV prevention strategies “combine the sociopolitical analysis of the feminist...movement and the systematic approach to promoting healthy behaviors central to public health theory” (Lee, et al. 2007).

What the SV/IPV and similar social movements have taught us is that in order to successfully activate communities - whether they be neighborhoods or for example, a targeted group of young people - there needs to be strong community will paired with a process of community-based issue identification and solution building. One example of such a process is the widely used Community Development Model for sexual violence prevention. A necessary component of the Community Development Model (and many others) is the critical role that prevention practitioners, youth-serving organizers, and/or advocates play in providing resources, designing strategic opportunities for community members to come together, and facilitating the process of issue identification and solution building.


Virginia’s Guidelines is a resource that aims to guide these practitioners, organizers, and advocates in their work to end multiple forms of violence in community. This tool is critical to the design, launch, and ongoing evaluation of any set of primary prevention strategies.

Arguably one of the most important guidelines contained in the document tells us that:

“Effective prevention programs tailor their content and approach to be culturally appropriate and relevant to its participants. This can only be effectively accomplished though the direct involvement of diverse community members/stakeholders in the planning of a program.” (2009, Action Alliance Guidelines for the Primary Prevention of Sexual & Intimate Partner Violence)

Despite this, many primary prevention strategies used with youth often focus on what young people need in order to make healthier choices (a deficit-based approach) while very few of those initial conversations that guide program and strategy development actually involve youth, and even fewer of those conversations are truly led by youth (an asset-based approach).

Youth have lived experiences and perspectives about their own families, communities, and schools that many adults do not. Marginalized youth, in particular, often bear the brunt of negative policies and practices in community and lack the institutional power to provide feedback and/or voice on the harmful outcomes of these policies and practices. This can result in further marginalization.

With this in mind, Guideline 7 describes an essential tenet of organizing for social change (and public health best practice) as people who will be affected by social change strategies being the ones deciding on those strategies: “Nothing about us without us”. The same holds true for youth programming. And this is what Phase two of DO YOU programming, DO SOMETHING, attempts to facilitate: a youth-centered or youth-lead approach to moving from intervention to systems change.

Youth organizing work, when facilitated with intention and solidly grounded in a theoretical framework, holds rich opportunities for transformation at all levels of influence – bringing about change in individuals, relationships, communities, and in systems and society at large. 



Wading through the various organizing models and research out there can be incredibly time-consuming. If you’re looking for a starting place, this section offers a few of the organizing models and blueprints that we like. These can help you narrow the focus and guide teens through a process of selecting achievable and sustainable goals as they engage in phase two of the DO YOU program, DO SOMETHING. The following section is organized by area of focus (policy, art actions, teen councils, etc.) with direct links to these resources and descriptions of the work. We encourage you to use any of these as guides for action as you work with teens to change their communities in the ways that they’d like to see it changed.

Mobilizing Youth for Policy Change

Building Effective Youth Councils: A Practical Guide to Engaging Youth in Policy Making
This resource, created and distributed by the Forum for Youth Investment, is designed to help states and localities create or strengthen their own youth councils. It is a synthesis of theory and practice that provides a general framework for thinking about youth councils, explaining the principles for youth action and the importance of youth engagement. It also incorporates advice and lessons from people in the field who have started or currently staff youth councils across the country. The guide incorporates examples from these youth councils to illustrate key points, focusing heavily on the youth councils in Boston, Massachusetts; Hampton, Virginia; and the state of New Mexico.

Idaho Model Secondary School Policy Adolescent Relationship Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention and Response
This guide provides lessons learned and a way forward for young people, along with allied adults, to craft model policy for their schools, school districts, and/or state. Looking at Idaho’s Center for Healthy Teen Relationships’ work in creating and sustaining school policy change that is aligned with the needs and resources of teens in secondary education settings, this guide delves into definitions, curriculum review, sample student codes of conduct, and school administration and district agreements that attempt to build a school climate consistent with preventing sexual and intimate partner violence and harassment in schools.

School and District Policies to Increase Student Safety and Improve School Climate: Promoting Healthy Relationships and Preventing Teen Dating Violence
These model policies were created to prevent teen dating violence and abuse before it starts, and were developed as models for school districts throughout the U.S. as part of the national Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships Initiative (Start Strong). Start Strong utilized four core strategies including: 1) educating students in and out of school, 2) engaging important adults and older teens as youth influencers, 3) establishing school policies to reduce and prevent dating abuse and 4) using innovative media and social marketing to promote healthy relationships among youth ages 11-14. These model policies aim to improve overall school climate, an approach commonly used by schools to improve relationships among students and to create a positive learning environment. It was written for middle schools, but is also relevant for high schools. Experts from domestic violence agencies, youth-focused organizations, schools, researchers, parents, legal experts and adolescent health care providers contributed to the development of these model policies.

Youth Activism

Youth Activist Toolkit (Advocates for Youth)
A toolkit created and released by Advocates for Youth in 2019 as a way to support youth organizing and mobilization (that is often already happening in communities)! This toolkit goes through strategies and tools that are important for organizers of all ages to have in their toolkit including power mapping and analysis, crafting your message, and building collective power!

Florida’s Youth Activist Prevention Toolkit
This toolkit was created by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV) Youth Advisory Board. The purpose of this toolkit is to provide ideas for youth activists across the state, to educate others about teen dating violence and to take action in their communities and schools, in the context of an ongoing youth group, council, or board. The Youth Advisory Board is made up of student leaders from around the state who are taking action in their community to prevent violence, specifically dating and domestic violence.

Peer Solutions’ STAND & SERVE Program
Peer Solutions’ STAND & SERVE project is an asset-based, peer-facilitated, prevention and intervention support program, which also seeks to promote protective factors amongst the peers themselves. They engage young people through in-school meetings, after school peer-education programming, monthly coalition meetings, quarterly mesa nights, and bi-annual days at the capitol of Arizona (building legislative advocacy skills). They assess the impact the program has on the peers, and how the impact could be made greater by improving the program. Two tools used to assess potential improvements to the program - and which could be used in the development of an ongoing peer lead program launched from DO YOU - are: 

  • Developmental Assets Survey: Conducted twice per year, it identifies which Developmental Assets are present in the peer’s lives to determine if there is an increase in assets as the peers become more deeply involved in the program. Also indicates which assets are being activated by participation in the program.

  • Qualitative survey with family: Shows how to include family in the program. Results from this survey frequently lead to changes in how Peer Solutions reaches out to and include family members. This helps facilitate buy-in from the peers’ (and their families), while also activating Developmental Assets in the peers’ family environment.

For more information on Peer Solutions and the possibility of incorporating their proven methods/design into your own youth programming, reach out to Action Alliance Prevention staff for support.

Art Activism

The Honeycomb Retreat (Action Alliance)
In July 2019 the Action Alliance organized and hosted a week-long retreat for young advocates, activists, and artists ages 17-23 called the Honeycomb Retreat. Our participants (fellows) went to workshops on systemic and interpersonal violence, consensual communities, zines for visionary futures, and using herbalism practices to heal from trauma. They also went to art sessions during which they worked with local artists-in-residence to create art in response to the things they were learning in their workshop and their own personal experiences. The week ended with a visioning session where fellows had the opportunity to talk about their skills they bring to our movement, the barriers that impact their full participation, the resources and support they need from adult allies, and what they are excited to do next!

Innovative Strategies: Prevention through the Arts 
Advocates for Youth is a national youth organizing and policy change agency that tackles issues ranging from violence in communities to HIV/STI prevention and access to comprehensive healthy sexuality education for young people. This resource pulls together examples of art-based activism that engage young people through theater, radio, film, music, and poetry to combat continued high rates of HIV infection amongst youth, especially youth of color and GLBTQ youth of color.

Youth Radio: Cultivating Media and Minds
Youth Radio is a Peabody Award-winning nonprofit media production company and learning institution that prepares diverse young people for the 21st-century digital workplace by offering them hands-on education and employment in journalism, arts, and technology, as well as access to support services like academic advising and mental health care. On this website, you’ll find examples for how to engage youth in building podcasts, designing interviews, building and sustaining a blog and/or online presence, and how to engage local radio and media in youth activism and storytelling.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) Model

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to community research and civic engagement in which the stakeholders of the issue being investigated collaborate in its inquiry and in the implementation of actionable findings. It is ongoing research done for the community by the community, in which the community identifies a problem. The community then researches the problem and presents the results of the research to the larger community. The larger community then determines and implements an action in response to the problem. Once the action is taken, the action is evaluated to determine how effective the whole process had been and what next steps need to be taken. Here are a few guides detailing how PAR has been used (for violence prevention work) and how to design a community project using the PAR model: