Overcoming the Summer Slide

Overcoming the Summer Slide

Engaging youth in the summer months (and all year long)!


Photo by Erin Camp Photography

The “summer slide” is a common phrase used by educators that defines the lack of progress made by some students who don’t read or dedicate time to intellectual exploration over the summer months.  It can even refer to losing ground that was gained during the school year.

For tobacco staff working to support their local youth organization, this term can take on a whole new meaning. Summers are tough. Students go on vacation, get jobs, set up semi-permanent residence at the beach and basically seem to “check out.”

If you think about it, retaining youth advocates is a year-long challenge. During the school year students have conflicting priorities; academics, the arts, sports and personal interests often leave little room for the SWAT work we would like to see them do. Until we find some magic “engagement dust”, we’ll have to rely on experience from the field, shared practices and our own ability to let the past be a good teacher.

Taking all this into account, here are 5 Rs for Retention that you may find helpful. These 5 Rs were compiled using models presented by other organizational structure professionals along with recommendations from national and state and local youth coordinators.

5 Rs for Retention

1. Recruit new members for a role.

Know what your recruitment needs are and what skills you need to get the job done.  Even if you cannot find a youth who is a perfect match, look for potential to groom new youth into roles that match your needs and their interests.  Both you and your youth should understand their reason (role) on the team.

2. Make sure that every new and current member has a responsibility.

The to-do list is the perfect place to begin delegating responsibility.  A new member may not be able to conduct a public speaking activity with you, but I bet they could immediately be put to work as a greeter at your next meeting.  As youth become more skilled and reliable,  increase their responsibility.   Be clear in your requirements or expectations with each task you ask of them.  That will help youth feel more confident in their role.  When youth (or adults for that matter) have a responsibility to fulfill, it gives them a reason to stay committed…to show up.

3. Cultivate relationships that will enhance their commitment to tobacco control and your organization.

Youth join the movement for a multitude of reasons.  Some want to learn new skills.  Others have a personal reason to fight Big Tobacco.  Regardless of the reason they join, one of the reasons they stay is because of the opportunities your organization provides.  One unique opportunity is to meet a diverse group of like-minded youth activists.  Their friends strengthen the commitment they have to the organization.  As an adult leader, you can help strengthen their relationship to the organization by the way you design meetings, having older members “adopt” new members and creating a collaborative environment among your membership.  You can also cultivate mentoring relationships between your youth members and adult tobacco free coalition members.

4. Recognize members when they have performed a responsibility at or above the expectations you set.

Recognition comes in large and small packages.  Public acknowledgement of a job well done encourages members to return for more responsibility.  I know youth love candy, awards, gift cards and “stuff”.  But, they also love thank you notes, letters of recommendation, service learning hours and sincere ownership in a movement that is theirs.

5. Retain members by building a legacy of their contribution.

Document their contribution so that they can internalize what they have accomplished.   This can be done by tracking the impact of their work.  Wouldn’t it be cool if you could share data with your youth members like, the number of presentations they facilitated in a year or the number of people they reached at community events?   This way, even a youth who doesn’t see a specific policy pass in their term, they can know they were part of its success.  As stakeholders, youth members will be your best spokespeople for recruitment.

Putting it into practice

Putting the 5 Rs into practice requires some planning and creative thinking, two skills that I bet some of your youth would be willing and able to contribute.  It is also a process of trial and error as there is no scientific formula to recruit and retain engaged members to your organization.  Your stakeholders, your colleagues and your own reports are a great resource to help you fine tune the retention process in your county or state.

Erica Olmstead's journey with youth advocacy and tobacco control began as a youth advocate in New York with the Reality Check program. Over the past 12 years, she has continuously focused her efforts on empowering youth to advocate against corporate tobacco, first as a youth advocate, later as a Reality Check Program Coordinator and now as a member of the Youth Advocacy team at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids in Washington, DC.


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