courtesy image by Benjamin Spence
The young people in the city have great thoughts about the city’s future and the opportunities they can create for themselves. I don’t think there are many quick solutions to alleviating some of the real anxieties that young people have if they’re not given the opportunity to articulate their concerns, ideas, observations, and solutions. A certain level of training and language-building is important for the translation of their concerns that turn into concrete solutions.
First, I would suggest that we should allow young people to address their worries and reservations about the city, and give them the tools they need to contextualize their thoughts for the people that are implementing the policies around them. Giving young people access to the language isn’t a mandatory necessity to hear them. However, it is critical if they want to understand and advocate for change for themselves and their peers.
How are young people speaking about gun violence and its impact? How are young people speaking about health inequities? How are young people speaking about juvenile justice reform or abolition? How are young people speaking about access to therapy and grief management? All of these areas of study take time to understand, but I don’t believe we can advocate for young people by being a liaison between them and the policymakers; they have to be in the same room with those policymakers to really make their voices heard. Likewise, Policymakers need to learn the language of youth culture and how they frame these ideas, issues, and experiences. The responsibility of communication cannot be solely on young people. Adults must choose to invest time and resources in actively listening and critically understanding youth; this should be a top priority for any budgeting or policy process.
Patience is a requirement to make sure the young people in the city have the tools to create and articulate their experiences and translate those experiences into operational policies. I think the questions asked above highlight much crucial thought points that we want to address. There are a few programs that I have been involved with and feel answer these questions and provide a platform for young people to engage with that language, namely, The Strategic Design Fellowship and YEAHPhilly.
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The Strategic Design Fellowship, operating out of Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation (funded by The Philadelphia Department of Public Health, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Humanature) has been a great program that merges professional development, mental health support and counseling, political awareness, artistic expression, and design thinking. The program focuses on teaching fellows how to advocate for themselves and explore diverse creative avenues that intersect with their interests in health equity and well-being. This presents an excellent opportunity for young folks to be authentically engaged and present, allows them to share their story, explore ways to process their trauma, and help them gain some opportunities for employment and professional development.
As I mentioned, it is a disorienting process to gestate ideas that affect one’s life without knowing how the system works around oneself. The fellowship leaders have been extremely patient about offering knowledge to promote a better understanding of the systems that surround young people and help them impact the policies, businesses, and cultural forms youth are forced to navigate in their transition to adulthood.
Similarly, YEAHPhilly, or Youth Engagement Advancement Hangout, creates a space for patience and unconditional love for the progress of young people. As they put in their own words, YEAH makes “impactful and transformational change for and with teens and young adults…” with a “focus on Black liberation while addressing racism and the root causes of violence.” They are “not here to continue the status quo, but to do things the right way, and ensure that we are fierce advocates for young people to get the lives they want and deserve.” Just knowing the people at YEAHPhilly, they highlight the issues by positioning themselves in the Heart of West Philly to identify problems and establish practical interventions to work with the kids that highlight their strengths and interests. Specifically, they create spaces for young people to explore artistic expression, and they empathize with young folks from all walks of life; discrimination based on experience is not at play in their programming. They work with young folks in West Philly to humanize those young people being processed through the juvenile justice system, give support to young parents, and provide a hangout space as an after-school option. They are holistic in their approaches.
Allowing young people the space to process the trauma they’ve experienced, spurred by the city and its history of policy choices or the lack thereof, and articulate their frustrations is a good first step. Meeting them in their language and frames of reference are imperative. Then, teaching them the language to translate those concerns out to other adults, along with their peers, can help them influence the policies shaping their available choices, everyday challenges, and index of opportunities. Lastly, in the poorest largest city in America, we should be compensating young people for their voices as a necessary step in attracting and retaining youth within these types of programs. This type of incentive supports youth in engaging their interests and can significantly influence their life while directly impacting their pockets.
Hopefully, with the policies that emerge from this process, young Philadelphians will be allowed to explore more ways of living, and maybe seek new pathways but will never be judged for their experiences. The most critical aspect of this shift is not on the backs of youth but on the adults who lead and shepherd the systems that shape the futures of youth. Are adults willing to significantly invest in our well-being? Are adults willing to reimagine the city’s budget to be a moral document that articulates its belief and responsibilities to youth within its line items?
While all of these programs are needed and provide great opportunities to young people, it’s important to me to point out that youth are overworking for their well-being. It would be an honor to partner with more adults who see us as humans to be loved and invested in as opposed to problems or issues to fix.
How are you including youth voices in your work?
Who is working with youth and empowering their leadership and voice to make change?
In what ways should our government, businesses, foundations, and nonprofits support youth in our communities?-30-
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