Inspired by The Ocean Project’s (TOP) research findings on the influence of youth and the public’s trust in zoos, aquariums and museums (ZAMs), YouthMuse was founded to jumpstart teen-led, museum- and performing arts-based campaigns for social change. YouthMuse staff are passionate teen advocates, helping organizations more deeply engage teens.  YouthMuse encourages organizations to involve teens in program development and design, not just in delivery and implementation. YouthMuse facilitates teens and staff in program design and consensus building. 

With a passion for teen and 17 years’ experience at Shedd Aquarium, Debra Kerr saw a need to fill: help teens reach their personal potential by engaging museums—which have teen education programs already—in social change. Kerr founded YouthMuse in 2010, developing a model for social change led by teens and supported by cultural organizations. The teen-led campaign model impacts three critical segments: (1) engaged teens who want to take what they’ve learned and “make a difference,” (2) cultural organizations that already work with teens in learning-focused areas but have little experience in social change, and (3) the wider community, which wants museum recommendations for personal action and sees youth as change agents. As creators of a campaign, teens learn critical thinking, communication and persuasion skills, and to work as a team. Campaign participants take personal action and inspire peers to take action through online media and face-to-face activities. Success fosters civic engagement among community members and builds teen confidence, leadership and empowerment. The result is an authentic teen movement at the intersection of culture and societal needs. 

YouthMuse brings facilitation, expertise and relationships to each campaign. The critical and exciting aspect is engaging the teens themselves, especially in groups of differing backgrounds, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and advantage; this mix broadens teen perspective and acceptance. Our first step involves reflection on their role in the world, and the teens articulate their desire to be an influence and engage others in change. We then bring staff and youth together to facilitate a youth decision on campaign focus and set goals and success measures. Further meetings develop theme, branding, name, content and tools. The campaign launches under youth direction, with teams taking responsibility for events, posts, outreach, video and more. 

Enlisting a network of experts and through initial funding from The Ocean Project, YouthMuse has created campaigns around the country. But the real motivator is the teens: They are excited about taking leadership in changing the world around them and having the support of trusted adults to make it happen. Says Anja from Seattle Aquarium, “this project…becomes a passion, something we want to see succeed so that we can look back and say ‘we helped start that.’” 

I think the full body of Ocean Project work helps to shape and provide greater relevance for all of us in the aquarium realm. We are pleased to be involved here at the Seattle Aquarium.
— Robert W. Davidson, CEO, Seattle Aquarium
When you see the clear, compelling data indicating the power of today’s youth, I believe it sounds a challenge to all of us. We can seize this opportunity to engender support for our missions, or we can risk what some call ‘sector irrelevance’.
— John Racanelli, CEO, National Aquarium
I can’t stop telling people about the work you’re doing with YouthMuse, because I think it’s so important; thank you for letting me be a part of it. I really hope to continue working with you in the future.
— Jennifer Forestal, doctoral student in political science, Northwestern University