Letting Our Youth Take the Lead

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NEW ROBERT PHOTOEveryone wants our youth to succeed academically — perhaps none more so than those of us who have dedicated our lives to youth-centered professions, as is the case with most readers of this publication.

I know that here at Operation Shoestring, the nonprofit for which I am executive director, our focus is always on prioritizing the best interests of the youth that we serve. We provide after-school and summer programs to PK-12 graders. Every program we operate is created and evaluated based on its ultimate, practical value in this regard.

For this reason, when we were deciding what the topic of our annual fall fundraiser, “A Conversation About Community,” should be, education was a logical choice. Considering that no politician, community leader or anyone else voices anything other than public recognition of the importance of our youth's education, we wanted to tackle the specific issue of why our state consistently ranks 50th in educational outcomes in the nation. Where is the disconnect? And what can be done to fix it?

As in years past, we began to mull over our options for panelists who would grace the stage for the event. Who would be the experts we should invite to lead such an important conversation? We covered too many pieces of chart paper with politicians, subject area experts and youth advocates before stepping back to give our brainstorming work an honest evaluation: It was everything everyone already knew. The event was nothing more than a sketched-out concept, and it was already stale.

But education — and the continual failure of our state in this critical area — is so important. What were we missing?

The youth themselves.

[Related: Schools, Youth Development Programs Seek to Engage Students in Career and Technical Education]

It wasn't until we were struck by the gaping, obvious void in the list of expert names and leaders in the field that we were able to see clearly what had been missing all along: the voices of the ones it's all ultimately about.

In the days since we've announced our “Conversation About Community,” headlining five Mississippi youth from varying educational backgrounds—public, private, high school, college and beyond, we have seen an enormously affirming response to our decision to let young people be the ones to lead the too-often-politicized discussion about improving education in our state. With the unfettered minds of our youth at the helm, people and organizations from across the political, racial and economic spectrum seem to all be looking forward to being a part of a fresh approach to an important, embattled topic. We have great expectations of the potential this event holds to move a seemingly stagnant conversation into a new place of hope and vision for the future. From the feedback we have received, we know that many in our city and state share our anticipation.

The simple — yet, we believe, profound — decision to highlight the youth voice in our panel discussion on education has been a wake-up call for Operation Shoestring as an organization that prides itself on its dedication to prioritizing our youth in all that we do. Not only must we keep our youth at the center of our programming and service work, we must remember to include their voices in the discussions and strategy-making that surrounds and shapes this very work.

As nonprofits or other youth-service organizations, we are often on the front lines of conversations about youth-centered topics — whether in the media, on social media or in community gatherings such as this one.

Therefore it is up to us to remember that, in the end, the ultimate authority on these issues is never going to be the professionals who make our livings in connection with them. While our voices and expertise matter a great deal, we must always remember that the foremost subject area experts — the ones who are living the experience — will always be the youth themselves.

Readers are invited to visit www.operationshoestring.org to view a video of our youth-led Nov. 12 event.
Robert Langford is executive director of Operation Shoestring, a nonprofit empowering children and their families in central Jackson, Mississippi to find their own path to success through after-school and summer programs for children, educational workshops and social services for their families.

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