I grew up in a predominantly low income, African American neighborhood in the Midwest. My family scraped along to get by, but with both my parents at home we were the anomaly. Our neighborhood fit a lot of stereotypes piped out by the mainstream media. It was referred to as a “depressed community”, and every night during the summer there seemed to be a drive-by somewhere around my block. I was jumped many times, and the number of times cops showed up and left from Kenny’s crack house down the street is uncountable. Everyone who was young seemed to be in a gang, and everyone who was old seemed scared.
Whenever I had a chance to do an activity that brought me out of that neighborhood, I took it. The year before, I became involved in starting a district youth council for the United Methodist churches. Run by a young minister from the other side of the city, I began driving to churches around the area to be on this youth council. It was an exciting thing for me personally, if only because I got to create and share and do things I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
That year, in 1992, I was given a booklet about starting a neighborhood youth council. Skimming through it, I decided my neighborhood needed one. I went to the church’s minister and asked him if we could pull it together and he agreed.
In a few weeks, I had twenty adults and youth in the same room. We were there under the premise that programs that served youth in our neighborhood could do even better by working together. For an hour we talked about what we did, listening to someone running a basketball team, a youth employment program focused on cooking, the food bank coordinator, an afterschool program worker, a VISTA serving in the neighborhood, and a few other people.
The youth in the room were friends of mine, and we all talked. One guy shared ideas, another reflected on how things were going in his life.
After everyone finished talking, we talked about when people worked and which individual children and youth they worked with. After an hour zoomed by, we left and everyone filed out.
For eight more meetings after that, we talked about what folks were doing and where they were doing it. There were conversations about getting more money for programs, more resources for kids and their families, and conversations about the things that were happening throughout our neighborhood. Some people were aware of the gossip while others focused on the newspapers. But everyone brought something to the table. I was proud to be able to lead the conversations.
By the end of that school year, I turned 18 and graduated from high school. The neighborhood youth council was over, and in the two more years I lived in the hood, it never met again.
From that experience, I learned the basics of collaboration. I studied the movements and ideals of the individuals at the table, and heard the stories and realities of the young people in our programs and lives. I learned to see the kids that came and went through all these programs as individuals with their own individual wants, needs, and dreams. Mostly, I learned to see my neighbors.
Since 1992, I’ve been involved with dozens of youth councils nationwide, and I’ve staffed two others at the state and national levels. Early in January 2014, I’m going to launch a new regional youth council for the Pacific Mountain region in Washington State. Its going to be exciting, for sure. But I’ll definitely draw on my own experience in order to best navigate the waters we’ll wade into.
What was your first experience with a youth council?