Michael Long, 26, is the founder and executive director of SailFuture, a Florida-based organization that works with at-risk youth, many of whom are crossing over from the juvenile justice system to the foster care system. As a teenager, Long spent two years in a juvenile detention center, so he identifies deeply with the young people who join the SailFuture program. He also understands how far a young person can go given the right opportunities and support—among his accomplishments, Long is a graduate of the New College of Florida and a recipient of a prestigious Truman Scholarship. Below, he shares his thoughts on how organizations can work with opportunity youth and their communities to help young people navigate the world and transform their lives.

Youth development organizations often talk about valuing youth voice and youth perspective. In your experience, what does this mean?

Most organizations value a young person’s voice, but it’s a question of what they value it for. Do they value a young person’s voice because it will look good in donor material, or will help raise money at an annual gala? Or, do they value a young person’s voice because they’re really trying to figure out a problem with a program model, and believe a young person can contribute to finding the solution?

What can organizations do to value youth voice in a way that moves beyond mere tokenism or self-interest?

Organizations should be mindful about engaging young people in the design of programs, services, and experiences. We can’t assume that because a person needs something, they want it, or that they’re going to engage in it, or that they’re going to look at it in the same way we do. Those closest to the problem—the youth—are closest to the solution. So, we need to ask for their input, and really take it into account. Valuing and including youth voice in meaningful ways means including it across the board—not just the forward-facing stuff designed to impress donors.

Organizations that work with vulnerable or at-risk youth populations often point out that while talent and ambition are evenly distributed, opportunities are not. What’s your take?

That’s a tough question. In some ways, talent and ambition are a product of environment. When I think of my own ambition, for example, it probably came from expectations that others had for me, and the things that I saw around me. And, talent is something that needs to be nurtured. So, that means that leveling the playing field is critically important.

What can be done, or done better, to level the playing field so that talent and ambition can be nurtured and developed?

Often, the people who are most effective at helping to level the playing field and provide youth with opportunities are usually the people who live in the communities. Big organizations will receive grants to go into communities in need, but they don’t understand the community in the same way as people who live there, people who are already working with their youth informally as mentors. Unfortunately, the existing regulatory structures make it almost impossible for them to get the necessary licensing or funding needed to operationalize formal community mentorship programs that could lead to larger change. If we could rally resources behind these folks, providing them with the skills and infrastructure they need, the outcomes could be much better.

In your experience working with youth crossing over between the juvenile justice and foster care systems, what can be done to make the transition smoother and the outcome better?

Different systems working with youth populations frequently don’t communicate well. Maybe a juvenile offender can’t get off probation because he hasn’t received the necessary services, and the reason he hasn’t received services is because his case manager is overloaded with clients and something fell through the cracks. So, instead of the probation officer picking up the phone to call the case manager’s supervisor to get to the bottom of things, he simply marks the young person in violation and sends him back to jail. The problem is, each system focuses solely on its own responsibilities.

Imagine a young person who misbehaves in school—maybe she gets upset in class, a teacher tries to discipline her, and she lashes out with violence. Then, the school resource officer steps in and says, “I’m going to arrest this kid.” Taking a higher-level view, on the other hand, would involve asking, “Why is this young person acting out?” Maybe she’s being abused by her mother’s boyfriend, and the mother can’t do anything about it, and that’s why the young woman doesn’t respect authority at school and lashes out. Asking these questions is hard—it takes time and patience and can involve stepping out of an individual role and into another, for a short time, for the wellbeing of the young person.