Design Thinking: Youth Centered Innovation

When Youthprise began in 2011, the organization was tasked with developing strategies to spark innovation in the field of afterschool and philanthropy. Innovation was a popular buzz word that many organizations found necessary, but difficult to implement. President, Wokie Weah and Chief Innovation Officer, Libby Rau lead the process in determining how Youthprise would become thought leaders in innovation and youth engagement by turning the question to those most impacted – youth.

In 2012, Youthprise hired eight young people as Youth Innovators. Through a process called design thinking, the Youth Innovators spent the summer generating ideas for and providing input on strategies to develop the organization’s youth philanthropy model. These ideas provided an innovative platform to launch the first youth directed giving programs at Youthprise. These programs included Change Fellows, Spaces of Connection, video contests, and the organization’s initial investment in Youthbank International.

With the success of the design thinking model within the organization, youth were hired on as full time staff to support the implementation of ideas. One young person, Neese Parker has taken on the role of Youth Engagement Manager and operates as a facilitator for design thinking. The process has been used in many different areas at Youthprise. From creative budgeting, strategic planning, and coordinating staff meetings, design thinking has taken on a youth centered approach to internal decision making. In addition, Youthprise expanded its design thinking process to contract with external partners looking for innovative ways to engage youth in decision making.

In December 2016, Amanda Fong, Community Engagement Supervisor of the Three Rivers Park District contacted Youthprise to lead a design thinking session to support the park’s efforts in creating more programming for teens. The session was a great success with 32 youth in attendance followed by increased teen engagement throughout the parks.

Youthprise sat down with Amanda to follow up on the impact of design thinking at Three Rivers.

Youthprise: Where did you find the young people?

Amanda: Mostly connecting with adult partners who we knew who were already connected to young people. We were hoping to connect with young people who didn’t know Three Rivers. We wanted a fresh perspective.

Youthprise: What was the makeup of the room?

Amanda: I think there were about 32 youth, three adult partners, five of our staff, and then Libby and Neese.

Youthprise: What were the outcomes of the session?


Amanda: For sure, the immediate outcome was lots of energy, lots of excitement, and a ton of ideas around possibilities. With that, we as a staff spent a lot of time sifting through and categorizing ideas, coming up with the main themes, and lessons learned. We then, actually, did a small portion of the design thinking session with our outdoor educator staff at Three Rivers. We did some thinking around, “Here’s what we heard from teens and what could that look like for teen involvement within your own site?” I know that at least one of those sites is hosting their first teen night at the end of October. In conjunction with that, they started a teen arts council to help them plan and put it together.

Part of what was talked about was more real, authentic job opportunities for youth in the park district with more skill development. That was our focus for the summer. We had a more boosted paid internship program. We had about 13 or 14 interns throughout the park district. One of whom found out about Three Rivers through the design thinking process.

Youthprise: What challenges did you face?

Amanda: The youth were so spread out. Thinking about transportation and finding time for everyone to gather was a challenge. Also, this all happened in December. We thought we would have a lot of time to dig in in the spring, but our actual summer programming took over. Now, we are working towards dedicating more staff time to implementing the ideas from the design thinking session. I am working with some staff to reconvene this fall and prioritize next steps for what else can we do.

Youthprise: Was there anything that was eye-opening?

I think some of the ideas that came up were obvious. If we’re going to do teen engagement there needs to be teens involved in the process. They need to be here, making decisions with us, helping to bring things into action for it to be successful. Having one online space for teens to find opportunities was a really tangible thing to do. It’s so easy. There are so many things going on, but they’re so disjointed. If you were a teen and coming to our website, it probably would be really hard to find opportunities. That’s one thing that we talked about that’s an easy win: to collect opportunities and programs together in one space to become the teen page on our website.

Youthprise: What changes have you seen in programming?

Amanda: This was the first year that my department had teens working with us. Our team doubled in size and we had all this extra energy in the room. We’ve involved them in decision making around some programs. Although it hasn’t made significant changes in how we run our programming, it brought a lot of excitement around the possibilities. It helped us move to a place to advocate for more time to dedicate to implement a teen engagement strategy.

Youthprise: Would you recommend design thinking to other organizations?

Amanda: Absolutely. Yeah, for any topic that needs to be explored, I think it’s an awesome process to be pulling in a lot of perspectives and ideas in a really short period of time in a way that’s engaging and effective. We’ve applied design thinking in other areas of our work.

Since 2011, Youthprise has continued to expand its many roles with the support of youth involved in decision making processes. Young people continue to be at the forefront to finding solutions to the problems that impact them the most. Design thinking has been one approach to the mantra, “No decision about us, without us.” Neese and Libby have lead design thinking session with partners including Three Rivers, Better Together Hennepin, and Minneapolis Public Schools, uplifting youth voice and innovative ideas to move the roles of these organizations forward.

For more information on how your organization can implement design thinking to involve the voices of young people in decision making, contact Chief Innovation Officer, Libby Rau at

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