Youth leading the conversation

This month the Your Voice, Our Future series continues on the SAAM Blog with a guest post from Alex Leslie and Melinda Evans who believe in amplifying youth voices. 

Scenarios USA and Cleveland Rape Crisis Center  share a mission when it comes to young people. We believe that youth should lead the conversation about the issues that shape their lives.  This shared belief has been the foundation of our work together and allowed us to engage in innovative partnerships, like I Will End Sexual Violence, a youth-led tumblr inspired by Scenarios’ youth-written film Speechless.

One reason our organizations partner together well is that we approach the development of youth in similar ways.  We work to provide spaces for youth to lead the conversation, while at the same time recognizing that we still have plenty of room to grow into our vision of effective youth/adult partnerships in prevention.

Youth lead in different ways 

Erin McKelle, a young leader who has worked with Scenarios and CRCC, shared with us a top frustration working on youth projects -- pressure for every young person to contribute in the exact same way. This can be stifling. It’s essential to foster authentic experiences among youth. When a young person emerges as a natural leader, embrace and encourage it. It is more important to build upon individual strengths than rely on blanket solutions.

Create opportunities for all types of leaders 

The same intervention or opportunity won’t work for every person--there should be some variety in terms of introvert/extrovert-based skills as well as what you define a “leader” to be.  Some young people are leaders in title and practice by presiding over student groups and clubs, some are influential through their social media presence, while others simply through model decision-making.  There’s room for every kind of leader (and for students who have no interest in leading at all).

Practice what you preach

This is a hard one, but it’s important to reflect as an organization on how well you live your values. Do you value youth input, but only offer up token opportunities to get involved?  Does your board have a youth representative?  Do you give youth substantial input on your curriculum?  Have you created youth focus-groups to know what young people think about messages you are sending?  Any move in the direction of including your target audience in various ways pays dividends.

Real mentorship and change take time

It isn’t easy; it happens slowly.  We know the only way to effectively grow the next generation of leaders is through positive relationship development.  Moreover, mentoring and growing a young leader is not a blind investment -- it’s building the world we want to see. 

Every minute matters

Every day, young people are bombarded by messages that chip away at their self worth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that relationships with trusted adults are crucial protective factors for young people, reducing risky behaviors and increasing academic achievement. You are the trusted adult in a young person’s life. You represent a chance for them to be heard and valued. Even on your busiest days, remember that each interaction with a young person --whether a quick check-in or an relationship-building conversation--could be a pivotal moment in their lives.  Real mentorship and change takes time and every minute matters.

Scenarios USA logoYouth 360 LogoAlex Leslie is the Director of Prevention and Outreach Programs at Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, an organization dedicated to the elimination of sexual violence through support, healing, prevention, and social change.

Melinda Evans is the former Director of Education and Outreach at Scenarios USA, a national non-profit organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy, and self-expression with a focus on marginalized communities.