Youth on Board

Youth on Board (YOB) promotes youth voice, trains student leaders, and creates programming that empowers young people to develop the knowledge, skills, empathy, and agency to succeed inside and outside of school.

Since 1994, Youth on Board (YOB) has been a leader in the field of youth organizing in the Boston area and beyond. YOB was established as a program of YouthBuild USA to promote youth voice, train student leaders, and create programming that empowers young people to develop the knowledge, skills, empathy, and agency to succeed inside and outside of school. For many years, YOB trained adults and youth at participating organizations to improve how they involved young people in decision making and positive youth development practices. Though they still continue this work nationwide, the program evolved after a partnership emerged with the Boston Public Schools, and YOB began operating The Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), a project that brings together high school leaders from across the city to make youth-directed change.

  1. Location

    Somerville, MA

  2. Number of Full-Time Staff


  3. Program Name

    Boston School Advisory Council (BSAC) Working Group

  4. Program Type

    Youth Organizing

  5. Youth Served

    Low socioeconomic status youth ages 14-19, primarily students of color

About the Program

The Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) uses community organizing to give young people the tools to develop into civically engaged leaders, realize their self-worth and community value, and actualize their potential. The unique social change approach balances young people’s civic engagement with their personal development and builds meaningful relationships to create cohesive support systems among peers and adults. Young leaders in BSAC define issues that are most relevant to them, educate their peers about the issues, and develop collective solutions through school-based, local, state, and national campaigns.

“BSAC’s ultimate strength lies in its ability to balance young people’s civic engagement with their personal development.” -Rachel Gunther


The BSAC program model offers three types of meeting opportunities:

  1. The Steering Committee is the largest group of youth, open to students from all of the district’s high schools. Bimonthly meetings are mostly focused on direct campaign work, such as hearing about issues, concerns, possible actions, etc. Students use these meetings to brainstorm ideas and sometimes hear talks from guest speakers.

  2. The Working Group consists of 10 youth who must apply and be selected to participate. The group meets for at least three hours per week. During these meetings, members learn about citywide policies under consideration, work on developing the campaigns, and strategize about how to advocate for their positions. The leadership team takes into consideration the ideas from the Steering Committee meetings and strategizes about what they should focus on. The Working Group engages in ongoing leadership development trainings on public speaking, relationship building, community organizing, and communication skills. BSAC works to provide training and cultivation of five main social and emotional skill sets:

    • The art of listening,
    • Working effectively with adult allies,
    • Developing caring relationships,
    • Discussing how “adultism” and other oppressions affect youth’s lives, and
    • Respecting others while speaking personally.
  3. The Biweekly Support Group is a time for the youth on the Working Group to share and listen to each other’s struggles, successes, and personal and YOB-related lives throughout the school year. YOB seeks to develop emotional literacy in its participants during the support groups by providing time to reflect on their lives, where they are, how they feel about the campaign they’re working on, why it’s important to them, and how it connects back to their experiences at school. Both youth and staff have the opportunity to facilitate portions of the Biweekly Support Group as they discuss issues faced at home, school, or in their personal lives.


The sequence of meetings continues throughout the year and extends over the multiple years that BSAC participants are typically in the program. Campaigns often extend beyond the tenure of the youth participants, and the work on certain campaigns ebbs and flows over time as the interests and priorities of the youth demand. Young leaders in BSAC define issues that are most relevant to them, educate their peers about the issues, and develop collective solutions through school-based, local, state, and national campaigns. The campaign is focused on change rooted in the students’ backgrounds and interests. For example, some students may choose to work on promoting constructive feedback from students to teachers, providing adequate transportation, or making more support available for English language learners in the public school system.

The sequence of events each year depends on the demands and opportunities associated with each campaign. However, each year consists of the following recurring elements:

  1. Fall Retreat - In order to reflect and re-evaluate their work, each year the newly hired Working Group and staff come together to strategize for the coming year. Campaigns were selected and agreed upon in the spring when the Working Group was hired. The Fall Retreat also provides critical time for skills and team building, setting expectations and norms, and, of equal importance, having fun and laughing as a group.

  2. Training - Students participate in trainings based on their needs, such as the art of persuasive argument, building positive relationships, the art of appreciations, listening skills, public speaking, communicating with politicians and the media, and campaign development. All trainings and group activities are structured so that there are opportunities for large and small-group discussions where a trained facilitator (either YOB staff or a BSAC alumni or current member) will use supportive strategies to elicit the voices of everyone in the room. These trainings happen throughout the year as needed.

  3. Public Events – Students may attend events such as school board meetings, other meetings with public officials, rallies, events to educate and mobilize their school peers, and other campaign-related events. For these, youth do a significant amount of planning and preparation to get their message and delivery just right.

  4. Listening Projects – BSAC also prides itself in ensuring that they ask other young people for information about their experiences and ideas, such as conducting surveys, focus groups, circles, and interviewing. These events take time and planning, and require youth training on the interview process and data analysis. Often, BSAC attends events of other collaborating organizations. These events build positive intra-organizational relationships and build youth power throughout the city.

  5. Winter Celebration – Staff always make time to celebrate the young people’s achievements—whether that be an incremental policy victory, a successful meeting, or a newly developed idea—to encourage them to reflect on and recognize their contributions and successes at every step along the way. Throughout, the program staff make sure they are having fun and laughing. This can be tough work, but ensuring there are light moments and celebrations keeps everyone energized and moving forward.

  6. Peer Support Retreats – These day-long workshops may focus on particular themes related to campaigns or encourage youth to consider broader topics, such as youth power or climate change. There are a variety of opportunities throughout the year in which Working Group members can participate.

  7. National Peer Learning Exchanges – Members of the BSAC Working Group often travel nationally to learn and share about other models of youth engagement in urban public school districts. In the last year, they have visited cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans to learn and share experiences around student evaluation of teachers and restorative justice practices.

About the Staff

With their unique organizational structure, YOB has a staffing model that spans three organizations. Director Jenny Sazama co-leads BSAC with the organizational support of YouthBuild. Her counterpart, Maria Ortiz, co-leads BSAC from the Boston Public Schools Office of Engagement. Rachel Gunther, YOB’s Associate Director, sits primarily at YouthBuild USA. Caitlin Donnelly spends 60 percent of her time working directly with BSAC and 40 percent working with YOB’s programming administration, development, and organizational support.

Key competencies for staff and volunteers include an in-depth knowledge of the issues students face both inside and outside of school, training and facilitation skills, and high levels of energy and empathy. It is important that staff demonstrate an appreciation for a collaborative work style and a comprehensive understanding of community organizing and advocacy processes as well as the ability to engage, motivate, and have fun with a dynamic group of young people. In order to keep an active community of young people engaged in the work, YOB also hires recent alumni of the program to be organizers, specialists, and program associates.

Tips and Tools from Staff

Case Narrative

To read more about how Youth on Board implements social and emotional learning, download their case narrative here.

Learn more about the best practices for social and emotional learning.

Download the guide