By youth engagement, we mean “the concept and practice of meaningfully engaging youth in decisions that affect them, their peers, and their communities. Youth engagement ensures that young people become an integral part of the work of organizations and communities and that their voices help shape the future.”

JCSH Youth Engagement Toolkit, 2013, pg. 7

Youth Engagement

As children age into adolescence, their need for support remains consistent, although the types of support they need and places they seek it may change. NICWA addresses these needs through youth empowerment programming with a positive youth development approach. In a deliberate way, we build on the internal strengths of youth to ensure our research, community programming, and efforts toward systems reforms are guided by their insight and lived experience.

The positive youth development approach we use is intended to support young people in a way that encourages leadership, positive identity, community involvement, and healthy relationships. Positive youth development “seeks to promote a variety of developmental competencies that young people need at individual, social, and system levels to become productive, contributing members of society. Positive Youth Development adopts a holistic view of development by emphasizing the strengths, resources, and potentials of youth, and holds positive expectations regarding young people’s growth and development and the contributions they can make to society” (Iwasaki, Springett, Dashora, McLaughlin, McHugh, & Youth 4 YEG team, 2014, pg. 321).

Our commitment to focusing on youth extends to our governance and staffing. Two seats on NICWA’s board of directors are reserved for youth board members, who have all of the same rights and responsibilities as adult members. Through a memorandum of agreement, NICWA youth board members are elected by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Youth Commission to serve three-year terms.

Projects & Partners

Tribal Systems of Care

A fundamental tenet of systems of care is that the development of mental health services and systems must be youth-guided—their development must be informed by youth who receive services. To ensure our technical assistance (TA) to tribal systems of care supports the youth-led principle, our youth engagement specialist not only provides TA to communities, but also develops programming, resources, and opportunities for AI/AN youth as well.

NCAI Youth Commission

NICWA’s longstanding partnership with NCAI includes co-facilitating or participating in youth programming during NCAI’s mid-year and annual conferences. In addition, NICWA’s youth board members, who are elected by the NCAI Youth Commission, continue to serve on the Youth Commission so they can report out about NICWA’s work and seek youth input and feedback that they can bring back to NICWA.


The Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) serves as the hub of Portland’s diverse AI/AN community. NICWA and NAYA have partnered in the past on programming aimed at developing youth leadership and advocacy skills. For our Photovoice project, we worked with NAYA to facilitate a youth leadership exchange between NAYA youth and youth from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. At NAYA, NICWA provided digital cameras and photography training to youth and facilitated discussions about the photos they took capturing their strengths, supports, and challenges. Youth presented their photos in an art exhibit aimed at better understanding the effectiveness of culturally based intervention strategies.