Tips For Adult Allies

Sometimes, even the best intentions can discourage youth activists. Here's a list of ways you can help, not hinder, young people.

Even with the best of intentions, an adult mentor or adviser can inadvertently hinder, not help youth activism and leadership at school. Using feedback from young activists and successful adult mentors, we have developed a list of tips. The goal is to help educators become effective allies to youth leaders.

  • Be honored. If a student or group of students comes to you and asks for help, take it as the high compliment it is. Students — rightly so — don't trust all adults in their school. If they have come to you, honor their request for help as best you can.


  • Expect success. Negative adult messages — "We tried that four years ago, and it didn't work" — are discouraging. Share lessons of the past with enthusiasm. Even if you're disillusioned, be open to future successes.


  • Walk your talk. If you say you want students to be active and well-rounded, back that up by allowing them to take action on various issues of concern to them. Help them become the leaders of tomorrow by giving them leadership opportunities today.


  • Do your part. If students do everything right, and you haven't turned in the permission forms to the administration or done some other process-oriented task, their energy is wasted. Be consistent and reliable.


  • Encourage decision-making. Leadership is a learned behavior. Give them room to maneuver, offering guidance not answers. No one enjoys being second-guessed. Instead, offer your best guidance, then let them decide the next step.


  • Help ask tough questions. Encourage students to understand opposing views. Help them explore the nuance of any given situation. The better they understand the whole picture, the more effective their work will be.


  • Encourage inclusiveness. An exclusive activist movement has its own inherent flaws. Help students broaden their approach to include others interested in the same cause.


  • Share your roadmap. You know how the school works. Help them maneuver its hierarchies and power structures. Tell them who has the power to say "yes" to their plans, and then help them strategize how best to bring the issue to that person.


  • Maintain interest. There is an inevitable ebb and flow to any advocacy campaign. Help set realistic expectations, and then do what you can to spark enthusiasm during the lulls.


  • Give credit. A well-run activism project is a learning experience. Allow students to incorporate their work into the classroom, writing reports, making presentations and so on.


  • Help define success. Remind students frequently that change seldom happens overnight. Even if a project's outcome differs from the initial goal, it may still constitute a success.


  • Debrief. This is a vital part of the learning process, where students gather to discuss what worked and what didn't, and what they might do differently next time. Guide them in making sure they assess their work at the end of the process.


  • Support yourself. Make sure you have your own mentors and guides, for moments of your own difficulty. Model such behavior for students. And if a time comes when you cannot continue to help students in their work, help them find another adult who can.
A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More