Profiles in Youth Work

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When you’re 22 years old and have policy groups delaying their gatherings because you’re stuck in traffic, the future has no ceiling.

Youth engagement advocate Ben Smilowitz strode into an American Youth Policy Forum luncheon on Capitol Hill one day last month, at which he was the keynote speaker, with the energy of an ebullient 20-something and the stressed look of someone twice as old. He was an hour late because of a tortuously slow cab ride from a meeting at the National 4-H Council, for which he serves on the 45-member board of trustees.

But that’s the hustle for a rising youth leader who coordinates Missouri Gov. Bob Holden’s (D) pioneering youth cabinet, serves on a national nonprofit board and attends Washington University in St. Louis full-time.

Smilowitz grew up in West Hartford, Conn., a wealthy suburb just outside the troubled city of Hartford, and sold fruit in his neighborhood to raise money for school projects. One day he unloaded some apples on a member of the Connecticut State Senate, scoring his first legislative contacts and a tour of the capitol. He was 7.

In his freshman year of high school, Smilowitz attended a conference of Jewish leaders in Vermont and heard one leader implore the group to speak out against the church fires that were being set in the South at the time, saying that the Jewish community wasn’t doing enough.

“It really hit home for me when one rabbi made the case for responding,” says Smilowitz, who returned home and organized a town vigil. The vigil “was a huge event, the top story on the news. I realized then I could do whatever I wanted.”

A 1997 summit of youth discussing problems in schools led Smilowitz to form the International Student Activism Alliance (ISAA), a network of high school leaders dedicated to increasing the influence of local youth. At its height, ISAA’s membership claimed more then 1,200 youth and 160 chapters around the world.

A personal victory for Smilowitz came when the Connecticut Legislature passed a bill he wrote, adding two youths to the state Board of Education. The attention landed him a spot on the board of directors of Connecticut Voices for Children, a state child policy advocacy group.

“He would call at least once a week while he was getting that legislation passed,” remembers Wendy Lesko, executive director of the Youth Activism Project, who first talked to Smilowitz on the phone when he called her – between classes in high school – to discuss putting youth on boards of education. “It was great for me to have this accounting of setbacks and progress reports.”

But when Smilowitz headed to the Midwest for college, he got a tough lesson on leadership transition. With him and his leadership gone, the ISAA collapsed. The mistake, says Smilowitz, was not installing a combination of older and younger leaders. “If you can get high school and college kids working together, with shared power, that would be ideal,” he says.

The chance to implement such a framework came when Missouri Department of Higher Education Commissioner Quentin Wilson, who knew Smilowitz from his activist work at Washington University, asked him to serve as a member of Holden’s youth cabinet.

“I said that since I’m not from Missouri, probably not,” says Smilowitz. “But I asked him [Wilson] who was coordinating it, and he said, ‘Nobody, yet.’”

Smilowitz drafted a proposal for how the youth cabinet should work. Wilson says many parts of the proposal were adopted, and the author was rewarded with the task of coordinating the first cabinet.

“Somebody with that kind of energy is always going to have a big influence, convincing young people that it [the cabinet] is something they would want to participate in,” says Wilson, who served as the cabinet director until September.

The 45 members of the cabinet are between the ages of 17 and 22. One or two cabinet members are assigned to a senior policy adviser in each government department; the youths meet regularly with the advisers to provide a youth perspective on various issues.

While Holden told his commissioners to take the youth input seriously, Smilowitz concedes that “some cabinet members have had better years than others.” He is confident that the program will improve as youth become a more consistent presence.

What career does his future hold? Lesko says she is around up-and-coming youth leaders all the time, and few have as many engagement skills as Smilowitz.

“When he speaks to youth about activism, he preaches what I call the ‘pain-in-the-ass strategy,’ ” she says. “Ben is a great pain in the ass, and he knows what he is talking about.”

Smilowitz wants to work in a major city, but joked at his Washington luncheon about his poor luck in the job market.

One audience member found that hard to believe, saying, “If this kid can’t get a job, we are all in trouble.”

Contact: Smilowitz at mailto:bssmilow@artsci.wustl.ed.