U.S./Global Youth Leaders Share Strategies for Mobilizing Opportunity Youth

U.S./Global Youth Leaders Share Strategies for Mobilizing Opportunity Youth

How can the experiences of youth from other countries help to inform and strengthen efforts to build a vibrant opportunity youth movement in the United States? To explore answers, (Re)Connecting Youth convened youth members of its Global Advisory Committee so that each could exchange their experiences--and potential solutions. Of special interest was supporting Opportunity Youth United’s (OYU’s) efforts to launch a Community Action Team in Baltimore, MD, as part of its national network.

Participants in the two-hour learning exchange, held on January 25, 2017, included Lashon Amado, OYU National Coordinator for Community Action Teams; Shawnice Jackson, a founding member of the National Council for Young Leaders; Daniel Martinez, Cofounder of the Youth Network in Juarez, Mexico; and Luke Rodgers, Founder and Director of Foster Focus in the UK. 

The session kicked-off with a visioning exercise as participants shared the old stories and values that each seek to replace with a new reality that supports and maximizes the contributions of the nation’s opportunity youth.

Shawnice Jackson, Member, National Council of Young Leaders, Opportunity Youth United, Baltimore, MD

Old Story: “A lot of polices are made for youth without engaging them,” said Shawnice. “When they are engaged, it’s often tokenism. Young people are often not recognized for their strengths and what they bring to the table. Leadership is reserved for white men.”

New Story: Shawnice’s future vision puts young people at the center. “They are consulted as experts,” she said. “There’s authentic community engagement and representation in local government. Whenever a decision is made for young people, they’re at the table.”

Lashon Amado, National Coordinator, OYU Community Action Teams, Boston, MA

Old Story: “When it comes to youth ‘at risk,’ there’s a commonly held belief that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. It’s too late for them,” said Lashon. “Young people are not valued. We [those in authority] know what works.”

New Story: In the world OYU seeks to create, a bright light shines on the issues facing opportunity youth. “Youth are actors and innovators,” said Lashon. “They have power. They’re committed to their communities.”

Daniel Martinez, Founder, La City Ride; Co-founder, La Red de Agrupaciones Juveniles de Ciudad Juárez (Mexico)

Old Story: “There are no organizations working with youth,” said Daniel. “The government thinks young people are part of the problem. Young people aren’t equipped with leadership skills. The idea of youth working peer-to-peer is crazy. No one promotes youth programs.”

New Story: “Young people are part of the solution,” said Daniel. “The government recognizes the role of young people. Youth lead their own organizations and are working peer-to-peer.”

 

Luke Rodgers, Founder, Foster Focus (United Kingdom)

Old Story: “[Young people in care] have attachment problems. They take drugs. They steal cars,” said Luke. “Young people don’t feel listened to. Fifty percent of the homeless and prison populations have experienced [foster] care. Youth manipulate the system for personal gain. Social workers don’t feel listened to. Young people can’t advise service delivery and don’t understand the structures of organizations. Those delivering services feel they've failed in their duty to help children in care. They don’t like their jobs anymore and are afraid to admit it.”

New Story: “Young people have enterprise skills. It’s okay to move on from your job. He [a young person in care] is a quick learner and has incredible survival skills. Young people have answers to facilitate great services. They have an incredible ability to work within complex systems. We’re missing the opportunity to hear inspirational stories. Youth workers believe they’ve done something that made a difference. There’s recognition that young people need love.”

Mobilizing Baltimore’s Opportunity Youth

Lashon opened the second half of the session by describing OYU’s goals to create a vibrant national network designed to increase youth opportunity in the U.S. while reducing poverty, with a Baltimore Community Action Team now in the planning phase. 

“In each target city, Action Team Members organize key stakeholders--funders, policymakers--and together create an action plan that addresses the needs of opportunity youth,” he explained. Among their activities, Action Team members serve as a reference point for protecting and promoting OY services, engage youth in voter registration drives, and organize community rallies.

Sometimes youth look to leaders outside themselves to solve problems instead of asking, "What can I do?"

Lashon Amado, OYU National Coordinator for Community Action Teams

Among the challenges OYU has faced, added Lashon, is convincing community leaders, including employers, that OY have value, and empowering OY with a sense of their own agency. “Sometimes youth look to leaders outside themselves to solve problems instead of asking, ‘what can I do?’” 

In response, Luke asked what positive qualities organizations and individuals would see if they were able to truly appreciate opportunity youth. 

“Passion, hard work, responsibility, perseverance,” said Lashon, adding that OY are often among the best workers when given a chance and when they’re properly prepared.  

“Too often they [OY] put a cap on what success looks like,” Lashon explained, emphasizing that this is an even greater obstacle than lack of societal recognition. “In order for them to be taken seriously, they need to advocate for themselves, to have self-confidence, to know their power.”

Asked by Luke what gets in the way of young people having a strong sense of self-worth, Lashon pointed to the very real demands OY face based on his own experience. “We don’t have time to create a vision for ourselves; to create our life plans. Every minute is accounted for. Outer city schools teach you to be creative while inner city schools teach you to behave, to be obedient. You’re given a prescription: Here’s what you can be, [instead of] what do you want to be? We’re not taught to be autonomous.” Organizational structures also reinforce existing divides with whites continuing to dominate leadership roles within nonprofits and service delivery organizations, he added.

Lashon went on to articulate a related challenge specific to creating committed Youth Action Teams: getting youth excited about participating in mobilizing efforts and assuming leadership roles. “OY often don’t know how to engage… they don’t know where to go for the civic education they need.”

This is especially a challenge in Baltimore, added Shawnice, given youth often refuse to travel to different neighborhoods and face a self-limiting prophecy. She cited other barriers, including a weak public education system that doesn’t prepare students for college and work, broken homes, high rates of trauma, and neighborhoods that lack real opportunities. “The city is very segregated,” she went on to say, “with a lot of street violence, crime, and homicides among young black men under the age of 25… This all affects your sense of what you can achieve and how far you can go. “

Reflecting on his own experiences through YouthBuild, Lashon spoke to the importance of caring relationships. “You felt love every time you came in the building,” he said, emphasizing the critical importance of developing young people’s soft skills like self-confidence. 

Despite the challenges that exist, Luke reinforced the importance of stressing young people’s assets and the value of relationship building, emphasizing the value of peer-to-peer mentoring. 

Asked what training Action Team Members receive, Lashon answered: “They get trained on civic education so they can conduct advocacy, canvasing… They receive guidance on where they can advise policies.” That said, he pointed to the need for a common goal to unite Baltimore’s youth around a shared agenda.

In response, Daniel shared that a strong unifying force in Ciudad Juarez was the city’s pervasive violence. Young people mobilized in the face of this danger. “All of us were scared; the violence was affecting our homes and local businesses. We wanted to do something to save our city.”

This is especially a challenge in Baltimore, added Shawnice, given youth often refuse to travel to different neighborhoods and face a self-limiting prophecy. She cited other barriers, including a weak public education system that doesn’t prepare students for college and work, broken homes, high rates of trauma, and neighborhoods that lack real opportunities. “The city is very segregated,” she went on to say, “with a lot of street violence, crime, and homicides among young black men under the age of 25… This all affects your sense of what you can achieve and how far you can go. “

Reflecting on his own experiences through YouthBuild, Lashon spoke to the importance of caring relationships. “You felt love every time you came in the building,” he said, emphasizing the critical importance of developing young people’s soft skills like self-confidence. 

Despite the challenges that exist, Luke reinforced the importance of stressing young people’s assets and the value of relationship building, emphasizing the value of peer-to-peer mentoring. 

Asked what training Action Team Members receive, Lashon answered: “They get trained on civic education so they can conduct advocacy, canvasing… They receive guidance on where they can advise policies.” That said, he pointed to the need for a common goal to unite Baltimore’s youth around a shared agenda.

In response, Daniel shared that a strong unifying force in Ciudad Juarez was the city’s pervasive violence. Young people mobilized in the face of this danger. “All of us were scared; the violence was affecting our homes and local businesses. We wanted to do something to save our city.”

Critical to building a citywide youth movement in Juarez was the use of art, culture, and sports to attract youth. Red Juvenil hosted concerts, along with graffiti, art, and design competitions. Participating youth come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds with youth-oriented organizations combining their expertise across issue areas. Classes were offered in micro-credit; workshops were held in social entrepreneurship and art-based entrepreneurial activities like t-shirt printing. “A cohesive movement is built around reciprocity,” said Daniel, adding that “young people need to feel they’re getting something out of the collaboration like skills training or recreational opportunities.”  

Lashon added that while OYU has frameworks and goals guiding its national-level work, it does not yet have a standardized curriculum to guide local efforts. The group responded with the need to network with other organizations and attend conferences to build off what others have done. 

As a next step, all agreed on the importance of hosting an event/series of events in Baltimore to build relationships, generate trust, and foster a common sense of purpose among young leaders in the city. “The more they know each other; the less fear and separateness they’ll feel,” said Daniel.

Critical to building a citywide youth movement in Juarez was the use of art, culture, and sports to attract youth. Red Juvenil hosted concerts, along with graffiti, art, and design competitions. Participating youth come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds with youth-oriented organizations combining their expertise across issue areas. Classes were offered in micro-credit; workshops were held in social entrepreneurship and art-based entrepreneurial activities like t-shirt printing. “A cohesive movement is built around reciprocity,” said Daniel, adding that “young people need to feel they’re getting something out of the collaboration like skills training or recreational opportunities.”  

Lashon added that while OYU has frameworks and goals guiding its national-level work, it does not yet have a standardized curriculum to guide local efforts. The group responded with the need to network with other organizations and attend conferences to build off what others have done. 

As a next step, all agreed on the importance of hosting an event/series of events in Baltimore to build relationships, generate trust, and foster a common sense of purpose among young leaders in the city. “The more they know each other; the less fear and separateness they’ll feel,” said Daniel.

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