I will never forget years ago when I was at a gathering organized by an ADR group when a woman went up to the podium to give closing remarks at the end of the day-long symposium. Almost as an aside, she pondered aloud to the group: how do we make sure there are enough young people in this profession to carry it on when we have retired?
That was it – the last word. It wasn’t meant as a question to start a conversation on the topic, but more as an observation. With that final thought, the attendees stood up from their chairs, grabbed their walkers, and began to filter out the door. All except me. I was left sitting in the existential aftermath of the question she had lobbed out into the room.
As I sat there, I wondered to myself: “If that’s what she’s worried about, she should pay more attention to people like me.” I was one of the five youngest people in the room, and I count myself as one of the few young people who have pushed into this field and the associated organizations. I was able to do it with the support of amazing mentors and outsized self-confidence, but not every aspiring ADR professional is equally blessed. Far too many are left outside knocking on the door, waiting to gain entry while those on the inside with their hand on the latch lament the inexplicable lack of young people in their organization.
This status quo doesn’t serve any of us. It denies young people entrée into this fulfilling work and mentorship from experienced professionals. It also denies organizations led by older professionals the benefit of fresh insight and the chance to shape the next phase of ADR practice.
Nobody asked me my opinion then, and – full disclosure – no one’s asking me now. But I’d like to offer the insight I have gleaned as a young ADR professional. Here are five practical tips to help attract and retain young people in your ADR program or organization:
Be welcoming – This goes beyond simply inviting young people to your meetings and events. This means changing your processes to be more welcoming for newcomers, especially young people. Many of the experiences we have on a daily basis are hierarchical and we’re so accustomed to it that we might not even notice. Consider if the structure of your events is reinforcing the idea that knowledge and experience is collected “here”, in the front of the room, and information is meant to flow in one direction. Even if you are unintentionally giving this impression, it will have a chilling effect on newcomers’ willingness to share. Reevaluate your group’s gatherings by asking yourself the question, “if I was walking by the door where this meeting was taking place, would I feel welcome if I asked to join?”
With this question in mind, redesign your gatherings in a way that will invite everyone to participate. We are all used to the old familiar meeting format where the meeting leader pitches a topic and anyone who wants to share can speak up. With this method, you usually hear from the same people over and over again, but rarely from people who are more introverted. Instead, pose a topic and give a minute or two of silent thinking time. Then, go around the table and ask each person to share what ideas occurred to them. This will allow you to hear from people who want more time to compose their thoughts before they share as well as people who would rarely interject otherwise. Take it even further: swap a rectangular table for a round one (á la the knights of the round table) – or ditch the table altogether to lend an inviting, coffee talk-style air to your gathering. Consider this: if there’s no table, there’s always room to pull up another chair!
Make Space – Young people have learned not to wait for older people to sanction their content and outreach, instead opting to adapt or create their own venues. Young people don’t need to type ten copies of an article, buy ten stamps, and send it via snail mail to ten different publications – they can self-publish on their own webpage or LinkedIn. Rather than submit a presentation proposal to your conference, they can record a videoblog and reach hundreds or thousands more viewers. In short, young people don’t need to use the same play book you did when you were starting out. If you want to draw them to your organization, you’re going to need to stop waiting for them to come to you.
Instead, intentionally make space for young people by literally reserving space dedicated to featuring younger people. This could be a column in your newsletter (no, it CAN’T be called Kids Korner), a workshop slot at your conference, or even a seat on your board – all reserved for youngish people. This provides two benefits: first, it demonstrates to young people that you care about their perspective to the point of soliciting it, which will make them more amenable to offering it; and second, it infuses your programs with the fresh perspective and energy of young people. Having a young person on your board would make an even bigger impact. It would demonstrate to all of your members – young and (super) old alike – that you value the input of young people. This would be incredibly meaningful for young people to see, especially as they are so frequently locked-out of higher decision-making bodies. It would also knock the dust of off the older members who usually occupy boards for lifetime appointment.
If you worry that you won’t be able to find a young author for that column or a young presenter for that workshop, then that’s what I call motivation! If it proves really challenging, different members of your organization can take turns being responsible for this task. If you already have a young person in your organization, make this their responsibility (see below, the snowball method).
Start a Mentorship Program – My own career development benefitted greatly from having a mentor, and I wish more young ADR professionals had the same opportunity. Mentorship programs are win-win-win scenarios: mentees get the benefit of the experience of a professional well-established in their career; mentors will appreciate the challenge and rewards of helping a younger professional; and the host organization could gain more members and increase member loyalty.
While the mutual benefits of mentoring are well-known, how to get involved (as a mentor or mentee) is less clear. A mentee could feel too awkward to make the request of a mentor, who might in turn think it’s presumptuous to propose such a partnership to a mentee, and neither might know exactly what a mentorship should look like. The perfect go-between is another organization hosting a mentorship program. YOUR organization!
Starting such a program doesn’t have to be overly burdensome to the host organization. There are a few simple keys to a successful mentor program. First, it should have a defined lifespan with a clear start and end date – six months, for example. This doesn’t preclude mentors and mentees from continuing to work together after that, it just makes the program more manageable. Next, the program should be partially structured and partially flexible: the organizer should gather all mentors and mentees for meetings at the beginning, mid-point, and end of the program. The participants should be free to determine the type and frequency of contact in between these meetings. Lastly, both mentors and mentees should be curated by the organizer to ensure programmatic success. Mentorships work best when the mentee has an objective in mind, so the program organizer should work with prospective mentees to identify the goal they’d like to accomplish with their mentor’s help. Mentors should be evaluated on how well they’d get along and communicate with a mentee, and their availability to meet with their mentee. Neither mentor or mentee would necessarily need to be a member of your program – it could be a way for you to attract professionals both young and old.
I just happened to luck into a mentorship program at a time in my professional life when I was really in need of one, but had no idea who or how to ask. Fortunately for me, a local community organization was piloting a mentorship program and was looking for more participants. When they called me and asked if I wanted to have a mentor, I gratefully accepted. My mentor helped me immensely – we met in person several times and communicated by phone and email. Even though he didn’t have a background in CR, his help was invaluable. That was three years ago and I still speak with my mentor and seek his advice regularly. Your program could boast mentoring success stories like this one and earn the everlasting appreciation of young mentees.
Emphasize the impact – Professional organizations don’t have the same appeal to the younger generation as they once did. Being able to call yourself a member of a half-dozen different groups isn’t seen as an accomplishment if all you need to do to join is cut a check. What’s more, if all membership to your group earns them is reduced fee to attend your annual conference and a brass lapel pin, then that’s not going to be enough to entice them to join. Instead of being focused on credentials like these, young people see others their own age having an effect on the world through avenues that weren’t available before: they can live-tweet a townhall meeting, they can record a traffic stop or an arrest then post it to social media, and even disrupt a politician’s dinner to the point that they walk out of a restaurant with head held low. In short, they see people who are influencing the world around them in powerful and tangible ways.
All you need to know about this phenomenon is one word: impact. What is the impact your group is having? What change is your program producing? What is different because of your organization and the people in it? Young people today want to direct their energy where it will have the most impact on the causes that are close to their heart. Be able to describe the real-world impact your group has and detail how young people can help even further as part of your team. Don’t be discouraged here: even if you’re not correcting cleft paletes on blind orphans in the Andes Mountains, you’re still having some kind of positive impact on the world. If you accurately and passionately communicate your program’s impact, you will attract young people who want to help amplify that impact.
The Snowball Method – This is the culmination of the other four strategies, and it relies on the idea that the best person to recruit a young person is another young person. The idea behind the snowball method is that it starts small and gets bigger and bigger with time. It all starts with your first young member: if you’ve applied the ideas outlined above, then by now you have at least one member who is not a great-grandparent. Call this person your “Youth Ambassador” (note: this person may NOT use a flip phone). It will be this person’s job to implement programs that will appeal to and engage with other young people.
This will require developing (and funding) new, youth-focused programming that you probably don’t already have. Instead of waiting for someone to contact you and ask you to develop something like “Youth Program X”, develop the program now and then advertise to grow interest. For example: develop a partnership with a nearby CR M.A. program and invite the students to attend your events. Starting here is probably the easiest as grad students are often young professionals who want to establish a network of contacts in the field. If you have a grad student in your organization, ask them to explore ways to reach out to the undergrad population at their college or university. When you have a niche with undergrads, investigate how to approach area high school students who might consider attending that college. Once you have developed a presence within a high school population (like a peer mediation program), seek out pathways to the students in feeder middle schools. You will essentially be creating your own farm team to funnel young people from high school, undergrad, and graduate school into the ranks of your program. Not only will you never be at a loss for young members, but by the time they join your ranks, they will have more experience with CR than some entry-level adults.
Some of these proposals may ask you to let go of processes, habits, and assumptions you might have leaned on for a long time, but remember this: in order to do something you’ve never done, you have to try something you’ve never tried. If you worry that implementing these suggestions would mean changing your organization to the point that it’s unrecognizable, think about how unrecognizable it will be when it closes to due to low membership. Young people have already demonstrated their willingness to create new organizations and political movements. That young people will carry on the Conflict Resolution field is certain – whether or not your organization is going to be a part of the next chapter is less so.