Shaping the Future of Policy: Inside the First-Ever Interagency White House Youth Policy Summit

How youth-led dialogue grounded in equity and lived experience is changing the conversation and building solutions for future policy.

By Erin Lem

7 mins

White House

With 64 million youth ages ten to 24 in the United States, young people are already shaping their communities and influencing policy. Yet, federal-level policymakers have rarely been able to center youth in policy conversations based on equity and lived experience and find barriers to creating a two-way dialogue between themselves and youth leaders.

But why shouldn’t this be the norm?

To help solve for this, the Funders for Adolescent Science Translation (FAST) supported the first-of-its-kind interagency White House Youth Policy Summit in February, which brought together 90 young people and seven federal agencies to discuss policy solutions to empower young people to thrive.

The FAST Collaborative—of which Bezos Family Foundation is a funder—was created in 2016 to provide a collective for donors who invest in different areas of youth and adolescent work to join to “better understand adolescent development and to communicate that knowledge to policy, practice and systems leaders.”

According to Shelley Waters Boots, FAST Director, the group had been in conversation with the Administration for several years because if FAST was “going to take some big swings with the resources we have, we’ve got to lean in on changing the policy and systems impacting the lives of youth.”

The Department of Education initially expressed interest in an all-youth summit with young people, but as Waters Boots explains, “We are interested in figuring out if we could use a developmental frame to engage with youth and federal policymakers about how to take a whole-person perspective. How do we look at all the developmental needs of young people across multiple agencies and weave together policy ideas?” Shital Shah, Senior Advisor of Strategic Partnerships at the Department of Ed, said the summit would not have succeeded if we hadn’t been intentional about engaging youth in both the designing of the event as well as playing a role in facilitation during the event. “Normally, young people sit on a panel to share their lived experiences, and then their role ends. But we kept youth at the center of the Summit, engaging and contributing in a variety of ways.”

It turns out that the Department of Education wasn’t the only one interested. In fact, along with staff from the White House, seven federal agencies participated. At the Summit, federal leaders, including Secretary Miguel Cardona of the Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, and Julie Su, the acting Department of Labor Secretary, all sat on panels with young people.

MT Teetz, one of the young people involved in the planning, said, “We wanted to make sure that [the Summit planning] was youth-led and that the youth were getting to choose everything and were fully involved. Because it often feels like you have these things and the youth are attending, but they’re not involved.”

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Shah said the Summit’s agenda was co-designed with the young people from the beginning. “Every single session had youth experts sharing not just their lived experiences, but also their perspectives on how best to get to solutions.”

To bring federal agencies on board and host a successful Summit, Shah, Teetz and Waters Boots had two non-negotiables: young people had to be centered in the Summit’s planning, and the federal agencies needed training before the Summit.

To ensure the former, a seven-person external planning team included four young people. This youth-led planning team, all of whom were compensated for their time and expertise, met every Friday afternoon leading up to the Summit to hammer out the details, from coordinating speakers to how to best frame the Summit to ground the topics in equity and lived experiences.

Teetz explained that his peers on the planning team all had unique perspectives and topics they wanted to bring to the table to help shape the Summit, from mental health to centering the arts. Pulling from and balancing those unique perspectives and prerogatives helped shape the Summit’s agenda.

The planning team also discussed how to anchor the meeting to give the young people what they need in the systems and policies—not what adults think or assume young people in this country need. They landed on anchoring the Summit in six key developmental goals all humans experience between childhood and adulthood: well-being, purpose, agency and decision-making, identity and meaning-making, belonging, and leadership. Using this developmental frame to anchor the Summit was unusual for such a consequential meeting.

“At that level of asking what young people need, it’s big. It was big. It always felt big. But it also felt super important, especially to the young people, that it cut across many places where, as youth activists, they’re shuttling between two or three different agencies with inconsistent policies or even a different definition of what adolescence is. A program at the Department of Labor that is totally different from another program in the Department of Health and Human Services. So, it was a constant reminder of the intersectionality of these issues and that young people don’t live their lives in the silos of federal agency buckets. And, it elevated the need for more engagement of young people in those policy conversations,” Waters Boots says.

She further explains, “The federal agencies said they’ve never had a meeting designed this way with 90 young people and about 75 federal leaders in a true conversation that was largely started with young people’s ideas and solutions.”

As for the training required of adults, the planning team had all the participating federal agencies and their representatives attend a one-hour communications and narrative framing training.

Waters Boots specifically called out, “This whole idea about not using the word ‘vulnerable’ or ‘vulnerable youth’ but instead using asset-based language was a key lesson. And, you could just see the light bulbs going off, and people were like, oh my gosh, we say that everywhere—that’s on all of our websites. It’s in all our documents. These aha’s that were happening [with federal agency staff] that are important. Once you see it, you don’t unsee it.” Fast forward a few days later, and at the Summit, Waters Boots found herself “in tears because I was like, oh God. They [the feds] listened, and that was so great.”

Finally, all the federal agency teams attending were required to attend another training a few days before the Summit. In this final conversation, the youth-led conversation explored what it can feel like as a young person to walk into a policymaker’s meeting/room for the first time. It provided language on ways to not unintentionally “other” attendees. “It was so important that adults were trained essentially on how to productively engage with the young people before the Summit,” Shah said. “Working with young people in a different way strengthens the agencies, and moving forward, they’re going to continue to use their experience to shape their work.”

Working with young people in a different way strengthens the agencies, and moving forward, they’re going to continue to use their experience to shape their work.

Shital Shah, Senior Advisor of Strategic Partnerships at the Department of Ed

One piece I took away from the Summit was how, regardless of our age or position, adults and youth were able to build trust and learning alike. Young people, federal employees and those of us in grantmaking seats left with a better understanding of how to work together,” Bezos Family Foundation Director of Communications Elyse Rowe said.

February’s Summit laid the foundation for what is hopefully the start of a powerful partnership between young people and federal agencies. Waters Boots says it’s time to “start thinking about how to actualize some of the ideas that [the young people] had.”

To help facilitate this, FAST announced it would invest $400,000 in grants to the youth activists attending the summit in partnership with federal agencies. Waters Boots explains, “It will be a process where young people will come up with either ideas that emerged at the Summit or things that have happened since then and find partnerships to then get the resourcing to move something forward in the next six to eight months.”

Teetz agrees and notes that the Summit brought about a two-way dialogue, allowing youth to access the opportunity to give in-person feedback and ideas to policymakers. “Often, these youth already know what they need to do. They just lack one resource, a connection, or a network [to get it done],” he says.

“In fact, Teetz’s takeaways from the Summit weren’t only about offering up solutions that centered the Gen Z perspective in shaping policy. He also “learned more about funding myself, as many youth have expressed that they need to understand funding to run their own non-profits. Many young individuals lacked an understanding of grant processes and were uncertain about the steps involved in initiating a nonprofit organization. ‘Cultivating Possibilities’ effectively addressed these obstacles.”

The Department of Education will help advance follow-up after the Summit, including bringing on a young person for six months to support the project. In August, young people, FAST and other agencies, including the Department of Education, will reconvene via Zoom to discuss the young people’s progress and what the federal team has been working on. To help facilitate conversation and connections between now and then, Waters Boots and her team migrated all the Summit attendees onto a Google listserv to streamline communication.

February’s Youth Policy Summit is still fresh in Teetz’s mind, and he’s eager to reconnect with the young people he met at the Summit. “I want to check on them six months from now [and say], hey, how is this going? Did this work in your community? Did you try this? Did you let them know about this? So that’s my biggest thing. Now I just want to see results,” Teetz says.

For Teetz, planning and attending the Summit made him “realize how many youth are involved in policy.” He explains, “It seems as though youth, specifically Gen Z, have been more involved than ever. If you have enough voices and enough people speak out — or [even] enough people willing to write or create bills or whatever they need to do to help implement policies — it tells me anything can be done.”

Bezos Family Foundation is a proud member of the Funders for Adolescent Science Translation (FAST), working to carry forward the policy ideas and partnerships grounded in youth developmental science – including microgrants dedicated to the youth and organizations connected to the Summit to follow up and work more deeply together on advancing federal youth policy.