by Olivia Allen – Project Lead for Youth Programs
It’s been over three years since I started coordinating Waterlution’s Youth Advisory Board (YAB) and accompanying school projects. One of the most exhilarating things about working with youth ages 19-29, is seeing them grow into outstanding young professionals during their youth advisor volunteer term and beyond!
This blog is for those of you who follow Waterlution’s work or those of you who are interested in volunteering with us! I’d like to begin by sharing some insights on the skill-building aspect of our volunteer YAB program. It is all very integrated and skills-building opportunities are facilitated through direct action!
One way to navigate your career path early on in your journey, is to get to know yourself better and understand your natural working styles. If you love science, but you also love social interaction, I guarantee you won’t be very happy working in a laboratory, disconnected from the community. If you like trying new things and having a dynamic workload, you might not be suited to work at a water treatment plant as the work, while interesting, can be repetitive. Blending your career interests with your personality is the key to finding a job that makes you happy. One tool we love to use at Waterlution to help our YAB understand what type of creative thinker they are (which helps them understand how they naturally can best contribute to a team or project), is the FourSight Assessment.
Being part of the YAB opens doors for many participants to begin working in environmental education or in non-profit organizations where the work is typically fast-paced, dynamic and involves interacting with the community! Our YAB volunteer program welcomes individuals from diverse backgrounds. Over the years, I’ve noticed we tend to attract:
- Future teachers looking to build their educational skills and gain experience in developing and delivering curriculum-aligned programming.
- Young Indigenous leaders who are passionate about water and about being a role-model for younger generations.
- Diverse students & young professionals in water/environmental careers looking to develop workplace skills such as communication, partnership development and project management.
My hope is that this year, our reach will be expanded to include youth who are working towards careers in the arts and/or media fields, as well as those who are passionate about incorporating water into their work.
Our YAB volunteers join us for a minimum of 8 months and with each cohort, we get a group of eager young people passionate about water. They are also at one of the most exciting but challenging parts of their careers – the beginning!
The YAB is composed of volunteers from across Canada who connect on a monthly basis via video conferencing. YAB members learn about video conferencing through these calls and as they organize and host workshops for youth via Zoom. There are sometimes factors (especially winter weather and global pandemics) beyond anyone’s control which can inhibit you from running an in-person workshop. Being able to coordinate, organize and present via Zoom is a necessary skill that will be transferable to any workplace. During this pandemic, many workplaces instituted Work From Home (WFH) policies and as restrictions began easing, many jobs are still continuing WFH for the short-term and some for the long-term.
It does take a while to become comfortable speaking up and engaging in an online meeting and at first, it can feel very awkward. But the best way to get more comfortable at this is to just jump right in. There will be awkward blips and mistakes made, but you can’t improve if you don’t start.
The YAB requires you to work independently, though the volunteer role and opportunities are well defined and shared in our monthly online calls. The YAB members learn to hold themselves accountable for their work setting their own goals and deadlines. Employees now have to be able to work without employers monitoring them and it can be difficult in the beginning to find this balance. Learning now how to work independently from home will help you adapt to a new post-pandemic world.
The YAB role kicks off with some of the most challenging independent work, outreach. Volunteers connect with local schools and community groups to organize workshops and events. It can seem daunting at first, but this is an important skill to develop today. Our volunteers are taught about the power of a good old fashioned phone call! No teacher or potential project partner has the same needs or offerings, so it’s important to be an active listener with an adaptive mindset. Our volunteers learn to hear what organizations and teachers are looking for and see where and how Waterlution’s school project can address their needs. Truly hearing what someone wants and finding synergies between both Waterlutions goals and their personal goals is a great way to learn how to develop mutually-beneficial strategic partnerships.
Another way our volunteers learn to be adaptable and nimble is by receiving training on, and experience with, facilitating workshops to youth! When engaging the public, especially youth, we at Waterlution believe you have to read the room and meet people where they are at! Of course, we offer workshop facilitation guides for various age groups, but you cannot predict what a group of 25 kids or more is going to be like. Our YAB members are trained to sense the energy level and interests of the group they are working with and select their engagement activities accordingly. When planning a workshop, we do recommend and provide different activities for you to choose from based on the age groups of the students and their interests. I am here to help everyone succeed and I personally love connecting with our volunteers during or after they deliver their first few workshops. The butterflies they had about workshop delivery are always gone and are replaced with newfound confidence and capacity!
Confidence building is embedded throughout the YAB volunteer program. The members are pushed to get outside of their comfort zone, whether it be in workshop delivery or in making videos for social media. We push the volunteers to try new things that they’ve never done before. Whenever they find success with something new, their confidence continues to grow.
In today’s competitive job market, it’s also very important to have experience developing partnerships, collaborating and adapting to our ever-changing world. Once you’re confident in your ability to try new things, your capabilities are endless and this confidence will be naturally presented in your cover letters and interviews. Believing in your ability to continually learn throughout your life and career allows you to tackle any situation. After being part of the YAB when you apply for a new or different job, I guarantee that feeling of being under-qualified or of imposter syndrome will no longer be with you.
As much as the YAB helps you grow your career, it also helps you grow as a person (I am speaking from experience here, as once upon a time I was a YAB member myself). The leadership and facilitation tools we use throughout the program help you understand how to balance chaos and order, how to use systems thinking, and how to discuss complex global issues with dynamic people.