Brief Incorporating Young People’s Leadership in Program Evaluation
Case Study of the Social Services Agency in Santa Clara County, California
Amelia Coffey
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An Urban Institute multiphase project has highlighted gaps and challenges in the safety net and identified promising strategies to ensure young people have the support they need to thrive. One core challenge is that many young people in need of assistance are ineligible for existing supports, or support is insufficient to meet their basic needs. One important strategy is engaging young people in improving safety net services.

This brief—one in a series of three—presents a case study of a strategy adopted by the Social Services Agency (SSA) of Santa Clara County, California, that provides young people with leadership opportunities in evaluating and shaping an internship program for young people participating in safety net programs.

Why This Matters

The years young people move from adolescence to adulthood—roughly ages 14 to 24—are full of immense potential. Research shows that this is a critical period for brain development that, if properly nurtured, can set young people up for positive identity development and the self-direction needed to successfully navigate adulthood. With a stable foundation, adolescents can thrive and become healthy, productive young adults contributing to their communities. During this transition, access to food, housing, health care, and income can shape young people’s life trajectories and affect whether they meet their full potential. But significant inequities—particularly for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous young people—have contributed to far too many having insufficient access to these basic needs.

Key Takeaways

Providing young people with leadership opportunities strengthened the Intern & Earn program so that it better supports young people. This strategy offers several key lessons for other agencies that provide safety net supports and are seeking to improve their services to help young people meet their basic needs.

  • Listening to young people with lived experience accessing safety net programs should be a top priority for youth-serving programs. Young people’s experiences can provide unique and invaluable insights into opportunities for program improvements to better meet young people’s needs. Older adults and people without lived experience are likely to have different values and perspectives from young people who participate in programs or have an incomplete understanding of how to best support them. Programs that serve young people should consider how to incorporate youth voice in their processes, even when program participation is not limited to young people, to ensure that proper steps are taken to adapt services to meet the needs of young people who do participate.
  • Working toward leadership buy-in at multiple levels is important. SSA’s experience demonstrates how starting with leadership buy-in at one key level (program staff) and growing buy-in among other leaders over time can work to expand and solidify youth services improvement strategies.
  • Collaboration is key. The resources and commitment that both evaluation and program staff at SSA brought to bear were important for making the youth evaluation leadership strategy possible. But collaboration across these two arms of SSA brought value beyond what they could bring in isolation. From bringing their unique process and funding expertise to advocating together at key times to agency leadership to engaging in ongoing partnership around interpreting research findings and enacting recommendations, this partnership demonstrates the potential of multiple players from within an agency combining their different strengths in service of a common goal.
Research Areas Children and youth Social safety net
Tags Transition-age youth Welfare and safety net programs
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
States California
Cities San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA