New research identifies benefits, and cautions, of mentoring organizational youth engagement

Ramey, H. L., Rose-Krasnor, L., & Lawford, H. L. (2017). Youth-adult partnerships and youth identity style. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46, 442-453. doi: 10.1007/s10964-016-0474-6

Summarized by Justin Preston


Youth-adult partnerships, or collaborations between youth and adults sharing work in order to promote social justice, strengthen organizations, and tackle issues facing their communities, can take on a number of forms. For example, guided by adult allies who act as natural mentors, a core component of this approach, youth engagement can include having youth lead programs, provide input on youth service provision, and participating in programs targeting youth and broader populations.

The youth-adult partnership approach has been associated with greater youth service utilization and greater motivation on the part of the adult staff. This partnership has also been linked to gains in self-efficacy, empowerment, and agency in the participating youth.

Such an arrangement, however, is something that can only happen if the organization is prepared and able to endorse the steps needed to implement and sustain the youth-adult partnership approach.

One of the presumed benefits of youth-adult partnerships lies in its potential association with identity formation in the youth. Previous research has identified identity development as a commitment following a period of exploration, while other models have opted to take a more directed stance, which highlights the socio-cognitive strategies a youth may utilize in order to form and maintain their identity. Demonstrating this, earlier research has shown that those youths who participated in youth organizing programs, including holding protests and other advocacy work, experienced greater identity exploration and affirmation than did youth in more traditional programs.

The authors of the present study hypothesized the following:

  • Greater youth voice, program engagement, and collaborative youth–adult relationships in youth–adult partnerships would be uniquely and positively related to an informational identity style.
  • These associations would depend on the broader organizational context. Specifically, that the association between youth’s involvement in youth–adult partnerships and identity style would be stronger in youth centers and recreation and community services than in health services and children’s mental health organizations.


Participants in the study included 194 youth (mean age = 17.6 years, 62% female) involved in organizational decision making at 27 different organizations. In addition to a range of demographic variables, youth involvement in youth-adult partnerships was measured using the Youth Voice Survey (YVS). The YVS consisted of three subscales measuring different aspects of youth engagement, sense of voice or measure of influence within an organization, and positive, collaborative relationships with adults.

The authors also collected information regarding the identity type of the engaged youth as well as the type of organization with which they were engaged. Informational identity orientation was measured with the information-oriented subscale of the Identity Style Inventory (e.g. “Talking to others helps me explore my personal beliefs.”).

Sites included youth centers, mental health/children’s mental health services, recreation and community services, and health centers.


For the purposes of analysis, the authors broke their findings into two levels, the individual (youth) level and the organizational level, with variables entered into the statistical model in blocks. These blocks were background (demographics) variables, behavioral participation, youth–adult partnership variables, organizational type, and the organizational type by youth–adult partnership.

The results of the authors’ analyses found that youth’s greater involvement in youth-adult partnerships was strongly correlated with higher informational identity style for youth who were participating in community organizations. Only program engagement (the youth’s active participation and perception of the work as valuable) of the multiple elements of the youth-adult partnership was related to youth identity style on its own.

Discussion and bottom line for mentoring organizations

The initial results from this research are promising in that they outline another way for mentoring programs to help develop the youth mentees with whom they work. For those mentees that express an interest, creating a space for a stronger youth voice to influence program decisions can serve as a venue to increase their engagement, but also to develop more confident and skilled youth. As this research notes, however, more work must be done to more conclusively identify the link between youth-adult partnerships and identity development styles.

There are some additional cautionary notes here, too. Links can be found in attempted implementations of youth-initiated mentoring. As Whitney Masten, interviewed here, discussed, it takes a lot of work to get the organization and staff to a place where youth voices can be heard and effect change.

Beyond that, not every organization is set up to launch mentoring relationships in the form of youth-adult partnerships off the ground successfully. As the authors note, health and mental health organizations were not the most conducive environments for this model, partially as a result of the more restrictive nature that the youth-adult partnership could take in such a setting.

Taking this into account, mentoring programs should be very intentional about any choices they make in seeking to more effectively create space for youth-adult partnerships. What seems like a great idea in the abstract may not play out as successfully once it’s on the ground in your program. However, with serious consideration of available program ideas that have been grounded in the evidence, youth-adult partnerships can boost engagement in your program, with potentially beneficial ripple effects throughout the program and the mentee’s life.

To access the original article, please click here.