Speaking Out, and Finally Being Heard

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Vox, Atlanta

I used to find myself sitting at home after school, doing a whole bunch of nothing. All of my friends were either involved in extracurricular activities or going to work. I felt idle and compelled to do something different.

In school I was always talking to my peers or teachers about different issues that I thought were important, but I never really did anything to change things. I didn’t have an impact. But becoming part of the Jean Childs Young Institute has given me the opportunity to initiate change. My voice is finally being heard.

The Institute is composed of four teen programs. These include Kids for a Change (a group designed to motivate teens to initiate change), Unique (an all-girls empowerment program), Checkin’ Game (which motivates young African-American men to avoid violence) and Youth Leadership Training (where students learn how to better lead their peers). There are about 10 of us who meet twice a week. For me, the Jean Childs Young Institute is a place where I can voice my opinions on issues that directly and indirectly affect me as a teenager.

One conversation that I vividly remember centered on the Jena Six. We went around the table and shared our feelings about the injustices of the situation and what we wanted to do to support the victims. Although some people’s opinions were more passionate than others, everyone contributed. Even though it was only a casual conversation, it mirrored the empowerment forums and events held by the Institute across Atlanta two or three times each year.

The forum is a platform that we as youth rarely get. The floor is open to all present, and everyone’s voice is valued. These forums give metro Atlanta youth an opportunity to discuss the very things that we feel impact our present and shape our futures. The forums are always fun and do not usually center on one simple topic but more on a broad motif, so you never really know where the conversation is going to go.

The first forum that I helped plan was titled “Just Thought You Should Know.” About 150 students from across Georgia participated. We discussed four or five different topics, like relationship issues and hygiene, and using facts and statistics to initiate discussions. I presumed that our sessions would be awkward and no one would really have anything to say, but how wrong I was! It amazed me to discover how many students are out there looking for a place to speak on the topics that matter to them, just as I was.

After the forums, we as a group decide how we can influence these different issues. For instance, after discussing homelessness in Atlanta, we decided to volunteer together at a local shelter. Other times we may write an editorial for a local newspaper or create a plan of action in response to an issue we’re passionate about.

I first learned about the Jean Childs Young Institute a little over two years ago through a family friend who works there. Soon after the introductions were over, I forgot that it was my first meeting. We were all speaking and laughing as if we had known each other for much longer than two hours. It was this feeling that motivated me to come back.

My favorite thing about the Institute is the interaction. We come from all over the area, but our desire to make a difference is the thing that keeps us connected.

I also like how the Institute offers a comfortable setting where all of my views can be heard, but at the same time the environment is still structured, which enables us to get more done. This open environment has taught me to not only listen to other people’s ideas but to come to a place within myself where I can respect our differences and see them as a source of uniqueness rather than some kind of barrier.

My leadership experiences within the Institute motivate me to promote advocacy among teens outside the Institute. I can finally make a change, now that I have the courage and the resources to hold productive conversations with peers about the issues that affect us. It is in this way that I have chosen to take a stand.

© 2008 VOX Teen Communications