Elevating Youth Voice Through TEGA

by Matt Horn, ACYI Americorps Vista TEGA Community Engagement Coordinator

Pictured here: Matt Horn, ACYI Americorps Vista Community Engagement Coordinator

All throughout elementary school, I remember being taught the importance of “active listening.” Teachers wanted students to understand how to listen so that they were able to ask questions and contribute should a question be asked of them. I’m sure that back then I just chalked it up to another rule created by the administration in an attempt to make classes pay attention. But as I transitioned from adolescence into a role where I was working with youth, I began to realize how important the ability to listen truly is.

Sincerely listening means you’re not distracted by an event of the past or concerned about something that may or may not happen in the future. It means being present in the moment and giving your undivided attention to whomever is speaking- not just waiting until they’re finished to insert your own two cents.

When was the last time you had a conversation like this? When was the last time you felt like another person was genuinely listening to you, not just using your words for a resource or a bridge to their next thought?

Some of us may be fortunate enough to have a person like that in our lives. But there are millions of youth and adults in this country and the world who feel their voices aren’t being heard because there is nobody there to listen authentically and empathetically. As the mind of a young person is developing, they experience academic pressure at school, social anxiety, and may begin to notice problems that arise at home. But how often are we asking youth the questions that address these overarching problems?

Pictured here: ACYI TEGAs receive their Market Research Society credentials as Digital Interviewers

“There is something fundamentally amiss about building or rebuilding a system without consulting at any point those it is designed to serve.”

Alison Cook-Sather

If you’ve been to an ACYI meeting before, you’ve likely seen Alison Cook-Sather’s quote on a poster or slideshow. Her words are at the heart of ACYI’s mission, and in the last year, the way in which we consult with those individuals was taken to the next level.

In 2018, ACYI began piloting the Technology Enabled Girl Ambassador (TEGA) program. Through TEGA, 18-24 year-old women from Adams County become certified as digital interviewers and go out into the community to conduct in-person interviews with youth and adults via a mobile phone app. TEGAs in Adams County have interviewed high school graduates who are struggling to find their way to post-secondary institutions, youth who have touched the juvenile justice system, school counselors, parents, and more. TEGA was designed as a qualitative research tool to complement traditional demographic and quantitative information, but what the data isn’t showing is equally as impactful.

ACYI TEGAs prepare to conduct digital interviews with youth, families, and community members on behalf of the ACYI Partnership

TEGA has given a voice to the most marginalized youth in our community- those who so often feel their voices have been forgotten. It gives young people the opportunity to sit down and share their stories without any fear of judgement, punishment, or unwanted advice. They are free to be open and honest because the TEGA they are speaking with knows how to truly listen and is empathetic to their situation.

When a young person completes a TEGA interview, they leave knowing that their voice will be used to make a difference in their community. Their answers aren’t simple data points that get put into a chart or spreadsheet. Their experiences, their perspective, and their wisdom will be heard by community leaders devoted to improving the systems that are struggling to support these youth and their peers.

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