Leading Through Youth EngagementMarch 21, 2023 Category: Column, Feature, Featured, Method, Op-ed
Communities around the city are encountering a multitude of issues ranging from gun violence, the opioid epidemic, the effects of poverty and divestment, and more. On gun violence, a national survey conducted by Enough is Enough Students Against Violence Steering Committee found that 64% of students surveyed said they were worried about the safety of their friends and family regarding gun violence, and 46% had a loved one who’d been shot.
With all that is happening, there’s no shortage of barriers and trauma that Philadelphia youth are exposed to.
However, there is also no shortage of nonprofits centering youth voice and engagement. In the arts, students are leading the way on not only shaping the work of the organizations they’re involved with, but also using their experiences to create the community they envision.
I serve as the Grants & Communications Manager at The Presser Foundation, a private foundation focused on music philanthropy in Greater Philadelphia. The Foundation provides general operating support to each of the organizations mentioned in this piece. While the Foundation provides general operating grants (used as an organization wishes) and not specific youth programs, we believe that youth- and education-focused nonprofits have an important role to center youth voice for youth to have a say, and ultimately help direct, issues and programs that affect them.
One example of this work is the student steering committee at Beyond the Bars (BTB). An organization initially created to bring music to youth serving time in prison, BTB has evolved to become a music and career planning organization that uses music to interrupt cycles of violence in Philadelphia.
The youth involved in the student steering committee have actively sought to transform BTB, and its programs, into one that serves them, their peers, and communities severely affected by divestment and gun violence.
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Formally created two years ago, the committee is led by the students, works for the students, and strongly influences the work of the overall organization. The committee meets monthly during the school year and more frequently during the summer. It shares feedback with BTB’s staff leadership about current programming, develops and plans its own programming and events, and creates collaborations with other organizations that the students want to work.
For example, the committee encouraged BTB to build out music labs in locations around the city, providing spaces for youth experiencing trauma to use music to process their emotions. And other events aren’t just for BTB students but are open to all community members. Last summer, the steering committee hosted an outdoor musical performance, while also giving away backpacks and computers.
Rock to the Future is another nonprofit centering youth voice. It provides free, student-driven music programs for Philadelphia youth. Hundreds of students are served annually through in-school, after school, and summer programs in schools, community locations, and juvenile justice facilities.
In the beginning, the organization’s focus was original songwriting, which was student-led. In the late 2010s, as the organization grew and refined its model, it dove deeper into youth voice within the programs and organization.
As part of that shift, student voice is interwoven into all the work that the organization does. Students decide what songs they learn and create, what guest speakers come, what colleges and trade schools are visited, what types of workshops they’d like to have, what type of food they’d like at their events, etc. Program alumni also work on the staff’s paid team, while others serve on Rock to the Future’s board of directors.
They are also included in organizational decision-making processes. For example, students participated in Rock to the Future’s logo and brand redesign in 2018, were included in the strategic planning process in 2019, and helped to select the organization’s anti-racism facilitator in 2021.
Currently, Rock to the Future is also working to implement a student action group to use student creativity to advocate for causes that are important to them (such as improvements in their schools and education system, and anti-violence needs in their communities).
“When teens have the chance to make their own decisions and learn the positive and negative consequences of those decisions, it helps them grow and learn their capabilities in ways that wouldn’t be possible if they didn’t have that chance,” CEO and Founder Jessica Craft explained.
Centering Youth Voice
Centering youth voice is also critical at ArtSmart and Project 440. ArtSmart created an alumni advisory board to help young alumni learn and develop leadership and management skills, while also incorporating their voices in the process of creating and refining the programs the organization delivers. “ArtSmart exists for them, and we believe it’s crucial that their voice is heard,” Executive Director John VIscardi explained.
Project 440 started its Youth Advocacy Council for students to provide input on Project 440 programs and receive leadership, project management, governance, and advocacy training. Students also lead conversations and advocate for issues that are important to them through the Youth Advocacy Council’s Music in Color program featuring diverse voices in classical music.
While there are a multitude of ways to incorporate and amplify student voice, Viscardi encourages organizations to start sooner rather than later.
“Don’t let the urgent crowd out the important. This type of structure of work looks different at each organization, but don’t be afraid to start this work.”
Matthew Kerr of Beyond the Bars agrees. “Sometimes, overplanning results in the work not getting done. Build your organization with your youth so that they can grow the organization, make it even better, and become agents of change for their communities.”
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses on improving the well-being of children in the U.S., effective youth engagement “empowers young people, builds mutually trusting relationships between young people and adults, provides an opportunity to build and share leadership, strengthens community connections, produces sustainable and equitable strategies and leads to better outcomes for young people.” For a city facing numerous challenges, engaging youth in decision-making processes is an important way to include current and future leaders in the challenges we face today.