Forgotten and Left Behind: Shifting Narratives and Exploring Policy Solutions for Vulnerable Youth and Young Adults

“Spaces with no young people talking about young people are not effective. Nothing for us without us!”
— Young Adult Leader


Forgotten and Left Behind: Shifting Narratives and Exploring Policy Solutions for Vulnerable Youth and Young Adults provides key insights and next steps from CLASP’s 2017 convening, which discussed the need for a multi-generational, multi-racial, youth-centered dialogue around policy change. Participants recognized that young people should drive the agenda for a stronger, healthier, more just, and more equitable future.

The convening engaged 36 participants—including young leaders, researchers, funders, advocates, federal and state decision makers, and program practitioners—to explore relevant data and research; interrogate myths and incomplete narratives about young people; and discuss policy implications and systemic solutions for advancing youth wellbeing and economic mobility. The conversation was structured on three core tenets:

  • Reject deficit-based narratives that define young people by their challenges. Instead, adopt an asset-based framework that values young people.
  • Explicitly center racial equity because of the extent to which structural and institutional racism continue to shape outcomes for communities of color, including young leaders.
  • Include a broad range of experts who bring value to the discussion, recognizing today’s policy and political challenges. Incorporate organizers, policymakers, advocates, researchers, and many others who could form the core of comprehensive strategies and partnerships.

What We Learned

The most powerful takeaway was the importance of having clear actions that place young leaders at the center of any strategy to engage them in policy activism. The convening did not aim for consensus or a single point of view. Instead, it initiated a rich conversation drawing on many perspectives. CLASP took away five lessons on how policy stakeholders and advocates can better engage young leaders moving forward:

  • Engage with young adult leaders through actions, not just words. This means creating interactions that provide real engagement—including designing the conversation so that it is centered on young people. We can’t force a small number of token young adults to fight for attention as part of an agenda that centers on other perspectives.
  • Young adult leaders expressed strong interest in at least four areas: civic engagement and political power, economic security and mobility, health and healing (including behavioral health and trauma), and justice reform.
  • Youth and young adults want policy partners to play a strong role in demystifying public systems, identifying levers that could lead to major change, and understanding how systems can impact young people and their communities.
  • Data are very helpful for the conversation. Several convening participants—particularly young leaders—advocated for more disaggregated information to help them make communities visible and identify and address their needs.
  • Reaching across boundaries between communities to build alliances, and potentially bring in new stakeholders, is valuable but not easy. For example, young leaders and “seasoned” researchers and advocates discussed ways to bring low-income young white men into the broader advocacy framework without diminishing the voices of young people of color, who have historically been left out.

We live in a moment when systems are ripe for, desperately need of, change. Despite serious threats to low-income young adults and young adults of color, participants expressed clear commitment to equal justice, economic mobility, and healing for (and with) youth and young adults and their families. It is equally clear that we must do our work differently to effectively create change.

Young people lead the way to a more just, deserving America. Together, we have the power to change the dialogue for future generations. We encourage you to read this report and reflect on how your work advances or limits thoughtful, intentional approaches to youth engagement, policy development, and action.

To learn more, read this report by Kisha Bird, Clarence Okoh, and Stephanie Flores.