Youth Activation: Turning Passion into Purpose

By Paul Beck
CEI Innovation Specialist

If a student catalyzes a meaningful change and a teacher isn’t there to grade it… did it even happen?

“Student agency” is a huge buzz-phrase in education. People are trying to find ways to get their students more involved by creating relevant learning experiences for them or asking them for their thoughts and opinions about school. But I have found that “agency” is often code for compliance. When I hear people talking about agency they often say they want their students to have agency so that they will get their homework in on time. Is this agency? And if so, is agency enough?

Through my work at the Lab at CEI, I’m questioning whether we should be calling this work “activation” instead of “agency.” What does it take for youth to be activated inside and outside of the education system? Many partners around the country are creating innovative and youth-driven initiatives focused on youth activation. Some believe that adults need to get out of the way; others think that resources and connections are the right way to do it.

Over the next 18 months the Lab at CEI is going to try to uncover innovative strategies to activate youth through our Innovation Fellows Program, partnerships with organizations leading the field in youth activation, and small tests of strategies we want to learn more about.

So, what are we trying to learn? We believe there are certain entry points or levers that we can pull to support youth activation. For young people to exert their power and design solutions for the problems that mean most to them, our schools need to change the way they interact with students. We think that activation occurs when a student has agency (the go and do-ness), clear purpose (understanding of self and what you care about most), and the power to make change (influence, access, and resources that youth can control). Our goal is to uncover the innovations that can help schools shift approaches and create opportunities for youth to be activated!

Conditions that enable student agency

  • Increase student skill or mindset in design, entrepreneurship, influence, or agency 
  • Increase adult skills or mindset in youth-adult partnership, supporting student agency, or investing in youth ventures. 
  • Supporting students to find and engage in their passion for change
  • Developing and supporting youth led networks
  • Creating access for youth to influence in structures of power (govt., schools, business, other institutions) 


House plants 101: If you create the right conditions for a plant to grow, it will grow. If you over- or under- water or provide too much or too little sunlight, a plant will not grow. This is a very complicated idea boiled down to the simplest terms.

So, what are the right conditions for positive youth activation? How can we create the conditions that allow for students to stretch their wings, identify their passion and access the power they need to make meaningful change in their schools?

This is one of the levers we want to learn more about at The Lab at CEI. What do students need to know and be able to do? What do adults need to know and be able to do? What structures and policies best create the conditions for youth activation?


Is it what you know or who you know that gives you the power to affect the world? Julia Freeland Fischer tells us in her book Who You Know that our current education system is designed to limit the connections young people have to the school community. In most schools, young people cannot access industry professionals, diverse groups of people or peers outside of their community. For students of poverty and students of color this often means that they are denied access to powerful social networks outside of their close-knit communities. For youth to create meaningful change, they often rely on the adults around them to do the connecting for them. This creates unnecessary and imaginary barriers; instead, young people should be connected with peers and near peers, professional adults, and community leaders, with direct access to the centers of power needed to create sustainable and systemic change. How can we create networks, communities and strategies that expand the social networks of young people?

Direction and Drive

How many times have you seen a young person who has the charisma, social capital, and drive to influence their peers and adults around them? How many times have you heard, “I hope they use their powers for good!” or “If they only had some direction, they would be unstoppable!” Young people have no shortage of passion. Too often, we think that we can create relevance for learning if we can only find a topic that speaks to our students or give them a task in their zone of proximal development. We know that when young people are passionate about something, they demonstrate growth mindset, determination, self-direction, and academic mindset. Unfortunately, we aren’t always sure how to turn that passion into purpose. What if we were better at supporting students to find and engage their purpose? Can you make learning relevant for a student, or do they need to make learning relevant for themselves? What if we had strategies to effectively engage students in their purpose? Would this ensure that students were activated?

The Lab at CEI is seeking entrepreneurs in education who are designing innovations to support and unlock youth activation. What lever are you working in and how can you bring your idea to life? CEI’s Innovation Fellows engage in a 5-day program and receive $1000 to support their participation and the development of their venture.