Placing Youth Front and Center in Movement Building

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Jocelyn SargentAs executive director of an independent foundation, one of the most exciting aspects of my work is the organization’s intrinsic commitment to community-based leadership. We have an explicit racial justice focus, one that demands equality and equity for people of color and low-income communities, and empowers them to have an active voice in the policies that shape their lives.

Foreign-born immigrants should lead the movement for comprehensive immigration reform. Low-wage workers need to be front and center when advocating for higher wages and fair benefits. Working families should be leading the conversations around the devastating effects of housing displacement in urban locales. Most importantly, the folks with lived experiences should not only be leading these conversations, they should be active agents in determining effective strategies to overcome their marginalization.

Similarly, empowering the disenfranchised should be at the center of all charitable giving. Top-down approaches of writing checks and making arbitrary demands as to how to support those in need is not only ineffective, it further contributes to the social oppression these vulnerable groups experience.

The same rules apply when it comes to youth empowerment.

“We are in the classrooms, in the school buildings for eight hours. It’s great that we have adult allies, but they are not living our reality,” said 19-year-old Glorya Wornum. “It’s really important that we put the focus on what the youth have to say and what they feel needs to be done because they’re the ones living through it.”

At 13, Wornum became involved in the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), a community-based organization and Hyams Foundation project partner. According to its website, “BSAC is a citywide body of elected student leaders representing most BPS high schools. BSAC organizers work to identify and address pertinent student issues, thereby putting students at the center of the decisions that affect them the most.”

Wornum became a student-leader at her high school, Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood and played an active role in advocating for herself and her fellow students. After graduating, she joined the staff of BSAC and is a project leader heading the organization’s efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Young people need to be part of the solutions to problems they and their communities face. Youth bring insight, energy and creativity that their adult allies simply cannot,” said Rachel Gunther, BSAC’s associate director. “Ensuring that young people are at the center of decision making is more important than ever in today’s political climate, and they must be the ones to lead the way toward social justice and unity in this country.”

The facts speak for themselves. In 2016 alone, Boston-area youth mobilized and were active on a number of key issues.

In the first few weeks of last year, two students at the historic Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the country, launched the social media campaign Black@BLS. Harnessing the power of Twitter and YouTube, students Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau brought to light a hateful, racist climate within the school and the apparent culture of silence and neglect that motivated other students and alumni to publicly discuss their own experiences of discrimination there. The allegations launched a federal investigation and the eventual resignation of the school’s headmaster.

In early December, several students organized a walkout of Boston Public Schools to protest the election of then President-elect Donald Trump and demand that Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh protect immigrant and minority students and proactively oppose discriminatory federal policies under the Trump administration.

And the advocacy and leadership of Boston’s young people didn’t stop there.

  • Boston Public School students have been active in ensuring the effective implementation of statewide legislation aimed at reducing pushout in schools through an innovative app for youth and a toolkit for parents.
  • Youth have also been advocating at the state House for criminal record expungement policies to ensure better life outcomes for formerly incarcerated minors and young adults.
  • Public school students were highly active in defeating a statewide measure to raise the cap on charter schools in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
  • Young adults in the immigrant community have been vocal around federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation supporting immigrant youth.

“Youth are the most important partners in our educational advocacy. It was student outcry against racial hostility that spurred a federal investigation of Boston Latin School. And, by creating a smartphone app for school discipline, students made sure their rights existed in practice and not just on paper,” said Matt Cregor, education project director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, a collaborative partner with BSAC and a Hyams Foundation grantee.

Wornum said nothing is a substitute for the passion and drive of youth who are genuinely engaged on an issue and are willing to work hard to find solutions. Adults play a role in supporting the work, but not to the detriment of lifting up youth and empowering them to be decision makers.

“It’s really hard to take [a youth’s] issue and run with it without knowing how they feel about it,” she said.

Jocelyn Sargent is executive director of the Boston-based Hyams Foundation. A philanthropist and social justice advocate, she has extensive experience in grantmaking, research and assessment, public policy, and community development. She co-founded the Open Society Institute in New York, and has worked with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Hogg Foundation.

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