Across the United States there are a number of innovative youth leadership programs that excite me. I get to interact with them sometimes, and other times I merely study them, read about them, or just hear about them from my friends and colleagues in the field.
For just over a decade, I’ve been working to support an decentralized movement of young people and adults working around the world. This movement has many different guises, including youth-led activism, youth voice, youth mainstreaming, youth engagement, intergenerational partnerships, and youth empowerment. All of them include youth leadership, in all its myriad forms. Another thing they do is center on transforming the roles of young people throughout society, and that has been my main interest, action that actively evolves society.
One of my favorite organizations for early 2012 is the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition. PESC is an entirely youth-led and youth-run organization. They work statewide on issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth. Comprised of leaders from youth-led LGBTQ organizations across Pennsylvania, PESC works in schools and nonprofits to raise LGBTQ young people on the radar. Learn more about them at http://pennsec.org.
Another is School Girls Unite. Wendy Lesko is one of my favorite people in the world. After a long career focused on national advocacy for youth action, she began actively supporting a group of young women in her city in Maryland. School Girls Unite was formed as an organization of students and young women leaders in the United States and in Mali. They quickly became focused on working to advance the U.N. Millennium Development Goals related to gender equality and universal basic education, as well as child marriage prevention and other human rights issues. In late 2011, they succeeded in getting the United Nations to declare that October 11, 2012 will be the first International Day of the Girl Child. Learn more about them at http://dayofthegirl.org.
Catalyst Miami came storming onto Miami’s youth leadership scene this year with the launch of the SoundOut Youth Action Curriculum. I have provided more than 35 hours of training for facilitators of this program, which works in a diverse high school in the city to deliver the capacity-building service learning program for students. Catalyst has tied the program together with their well-established programs focused on parent leadership and children’s leadership, and is seeing excellent results. Find some information at http://commonaction.blogspot.com/2011/10/classroom-characteristics-supporting.html.
The indefatigable Joshua Gorman is behind Generation Waking Up. A global campaign to ignite a generation of young people to bring forth a thriving, just, sustainable world, the organization facilitates powerful training workshops across the country, networking thousands of young people to change the world. Learn more about them at www.generationwakingup.org.
A local organization, the Seattle Young People’s Project (SYPP) is a youth-led, adult-supported, social justice organization that empowers young people (ages 13-18) to express themselves and take action on the issues that affect their lives. They’ve always been a cutting edge model, and this year has been exemplary. Learn more at http://sypp.org.
Through 2010 and ’11, the US Department of Education ran a suave youth engagement program under the deft hand of Alberto Retana. With his guidance, the agency engaged with thousands of young people across the U.S., and actual students were positioned in places of direct consultation to the Secretary of Education and even the President. While Alberto left the agency late last year, the program is continuing on. Its best to learn about it on their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/ED-Youth-Voices/136786839692361?sk=wall.
Honorable mentions in the “2 Kewl 4 School” category PUEBLO, or People United for a Better Oakland, which conducted a powerful youth-led study of high school students in Oakland in 2011 regarding their perceptions of police. The survey is provoking serious conversations in the city about improvement. Information is at http://www.peopleunited.org/cspa/. Another is Students Speak Out, a social network working both online and offline for students influence policy conversations by co-defining public problems and co-creating solutions. They’re after my heart. You can learn more about them at http://www.citizing.org/studentsspeakout/. Also, a big shout-out to Vote 17 Lowell, a youth-led initiative to lower the voting age in Lowell, Massachusetts’s municipal elections to 17 years old. The Vote 17 campaign is unlike any similar past or current bill as it calls for the initiative to appear on Lowell’s local election ballot after full State House approval. Teen organizers are asking that the state legislature allow the voters of Lowell to decide on an issue that has already received full support from all levels of Lowell’s city government and its statehouse delegation. They made huge in 2011, and I’m looking forward to seeing them storm forward in the future. They’re online at http://vote17lowell.tumblr.com/.
Me discussing youth kicking butt wouldn’t be right if I didn’t give props to adults who are actively allying with young people to get the good work done. I want to start by giving mad respect to the Perrin Family Foundation in Connecticut. For more than a few years now they’ve been focused on providing real dollars to youth voice programs across their state that are doing cool, cool things. Check out their strategy at http://www.perrinfamilyfoundation.org/strategy.html. They’ve also been blogging about it, and getting the word out is a significant part of the work. I really like their blog, which is at http://perrinfamilyfoundation.blogspot.com/. (You may have read my recent blog, Foundations Fail Youth By Design. Perrin is completely not included in this analysis.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the King County Youth Engagement Practitioners Cadre. Funded by the Seattle Youth Engagement Zone, I’m partnering with a coalition in Seattle called SOAR to facilitate this learning community for 22 youth engagement experts from across the county. We’re working together to share what we know, figure out what we don’t, and shore up the capability of King County to support substantive youth leadership work far into the future. It rawks.
Worth mentioning, too, is Jessica Taft’s book, Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas. Although it came out in 2010, it really impacted their field in 2011. It tells the powerful story of young women, uniquely positioned agents of social change.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There are literally THOUSANDS of butt-kicking examples of young people changing the world right now all across the country, not to mention the MILLIONS of youth around the world who are doing it. AND IT IS WORKING! This is only a small survey of what I remembered quickly and off the top of my head. Please respond and tell me what I have missed!
Props to all young people of color and low-income youth struggling for leadership, power, and justice across the United States and around the world. I stand with you. Much love to the adult allies who support them. I have great respect for every young person who is deeply committed to changing the world, no matter what their background is. Everyone can be engaged, and that is right. Adults working in partnership with these young people, please keep doing what you do. Finally, here’s a reminder to anyone who has read this far: Get engaged in yourself, first, and seek to engage other people after that. Never the reverse. Learn more.
CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (360) 489-9680.