Holding hands, seven young people stood in a circle doing final breathing exercises before their entrance onto the stage — the culmination of months of work to create a day where youth voices, including theirs, would be in the spotlight. The general message they received in their lives is that they don’t have what it takes to be visible. Their opinions don’t matter, aren’t worth something. They aren’t worth something. But on this day, their ideas — and those of the 120 young people in the audience — were everything.
Clad in a green shirt designating her as a member of the Youth Summit Coordinating Council, Heaven walked onto the stage and declared with nervous excitement: “Welcome everyone to the sixth annual GSS Youth Summit!”
The audience echoed her enthusiasm with energetic applause and eager howls and hoots. With that launched a day of youth-led workshops devised and facilitated by teams of youth ambassadors from Good Shepherd Services’ programs across New York City.
For four months, while the Youth Coordinating Council met to plan the summit day, 16 youth ambassador teams from Brooklyn and the Bronx worked on their charge: to choose a critical issue in their community, conduct research and devise a social action project to address it. At the Youth Summit, each team would present their project, the impact in their community and their recommendations for the future.
Each team chose an issue deeply connected to their community and their own lives. Boys’ & Girls’ Young Adult Borough Center chose Anti-Violence Awareness, a project born from the loss of a classmate during a shooting. “We chose this project to honor his life and prevent this from happening again in our and in other communities,” Sequoia stated as her team members shared resources and information on violence prevention. Creative presentations continued with topics like nutrition, microaggressions, cell phone use in schools, police brutality, undocumented status, gentrification and knowing your civil rights.
In the first few years of the Youth Summit, teams used their presentation as their whole project, limiting their reach to summit attendees. To extend their impact and deepen their experience, we introduced elements of service-learning and civic engagement. The following year, we taught research skills to assist in their project development, and distinguished the project from the presentation. Those skills were clearly connected to college and career readiness, and required a higher degree of long-term commitment from the youth ambassadors — not an easy task, given the degree of historical truancy in our young people’s lives.
Refining these elements, however, also required better training and support of our staff mentors. “This is a project that is in addition to my regular job with the kids, but they love it. I love it. So, I don’t mind. But it’s hard work. A lot of time, patience, teaching, reteaching.” Geoffrey shared his perspective as a two-time summit mentor at the first meeting of the year.
To foster young leadership toward social change through a pedagogy around social action and youth development, we needed to professionally develop our mentors. We couldn’t assume we all agreed how youth-led, youth-driven leadership development looked. As a new team of mentors is formed each year, we establish a professional learning community of practice where we share, discuss and hone our craft as youth workers and then get to immediately put what we learn into practice with our ambassador teams.
“It’s so great to come to the mentor meetings because you get a lot of ideas and learn from each other. You don’t feel alone in the work, and then when you get to the Youth Summit, it’s like, wow, we were all working on this great thing together in different parts of the city,” said Tyler, a second-time site mentor.
Evaluations from this year’s event revealed that more than 90 percent of the participants felt they made an impact in their community, school or neighborhood with their team’s project, and nearly all agreed that they learned new skills that would help with their future education and employment.
Great leadership takes practice, and ultimately, our Youth Summit became an experiential learning opportunity for both youth and staff on how to collaboratively take responsible action to make a difference in our communities. With the proper investment in their education and opportunities, our youth will become key actors in changing the trajectories of their own futures and drive social progress rather than become passive participants in a rapidly changing and increasingly unpredictable world.
Lan To is director of Post Secondary Initiatives for Good Shepherd Services, which assists more than 20,000 families in more than 80 programs in New York City’s highest-need communities.