Youth organizing can be a powerful tool for social change, developing youth leaders who take action to improve the communities they live in and grow up to be strong, politically engaged adults. Youth leaders who begin organizing early in their high school careers gain valuable experience doing outreach to their peers, researching the root causes of issues, developing campaigns, proposing solutions, and negotiating with decision makers. These leaders become the backbone of their organizations, so it can be challenging when they age out and take the skills they developed with them. For that reason, it is critically important to have a well thought out leadership pipeline that continually brings new leaders up through the work over time.
As the Funder’s Collaborative on Youth Organizing noted in Building a Pipeline for Justice, even organizations with highly developed leadership pipelines often overlook strategies that prepare young people to put the skills they learn into practice as they move into the next phase of their lives. At the same time, organizations sometimes overlook young people who came up through their programs when engaged in succession planning and hiring organizers.
At 19 years old, Erick Carrión (at the time, a college student at the University of the Sacred Heart in Puerto Rico), began working as a youth leader to develop a new Youth Led Social Change organization called Hearing Youth Voices (HYV) in New London, CT. What he learned in three summers working with HYV would follow him throughout his college career and ultimately inspire him to become a youth organizer. Erick was recently hired into a newly created Youth Organizer position at FRESH New London, a youth food justice organization. Our Associate Program Officer, Camelle Scott-Mujahid, spoke with Erick about his experience as a youth leader, his hopes for his new position at FRESH and his thoughts on the value of hiring youth leaders as staff at youth-led social change organizations.
CSM: How did you get involved in social justice?
EC: When I was in high school, I made connections with the community, with non-profits and with people who were working in the justice environment involving youth. I left in 2010 to go to Puerto Rico for college. Whenever I finished my semester in Puerto Rico, I would come back and work for New London Youth Affairs. (They have a program where youth can have a job in the summer.)
In Summer 2012, I got to meet Laura Burfoot who worked at New London Youth Affairs at the time. She approached me and talked to me about this program that she was trying to set up called Hearing Youth Voices (HYV).
She said, “You’re a product of the high school and you have friends there now. How can we make it a little bit better? And I thought, “I’m really interested in that!”
I was in meetings with Chelsea [Cleveland], Laura [Burfoot], and Ranita [Ray] (Now Dr. Ranita Ray, Ph.D.) At the time, we didn’t have any members, and I was a volunteer. I was actually one of the first youth involved with HYV. In the beginning, HYV did mainly research and since Ranita was studying social research at UCONN, she helped us get our math right.
CSM: What was it like doing this work with Hearing Youth Voices? What did you learn?
EC: You have to be engaged in the kind of work that you do as a youth. I didn’t have any title at all in 2012. We were getting more involved in the community with youth and with the students who were impacted by issues they were facing at the high school. We were learning about how the school system works overall and seeing how it affects students more negatively than positively.
Getting students to accept that is hard. They’re being taught by the system that the system is always correct and that it’s the students that are wrong, not the system. (When I speak about “the system” I’m talking about the system of oppression inside the school system.)
When students do this work, they don’t only grow as individual youth because we are teaching them that they have the power – that we as youth have the power to make changes to the system that oppresses us.
I don’t work at HYV any more, but I have seen how the organization has grown and how the youth have grown. I’m so proud of the organization and I’m so proud of the youth. I know that those summers that I worked with them weren’t in vain. We took the time to educate ourselves and the group used that to make a change and get better school policies on attendance and credit loss. Read more: New London Youth Win New School District Policy on Credit Loss
CSM: Why do you think that it’s important for youth to learn about their power?
EC: We as youth are experts in the issues that are affecting us everyday. So the process of learning what’s oppressing us, getting to accept that we have power, and getting people in the community to understand that we are experts on problems that are affecting us in the community is really important. It means that young people will contribute their skills and ideas, and their creativity to make a difference, to make the system less oppressive.
CSM: What did you do after you graduated?
EC: The summers that I was working with Hearing Youth Voices inspired me to get a minor in education (my major was in theater). My last year in college was supposed to be 2014, but I stayed for an extra year and graduated in May 2015 to minor in education and start graduate school for my Masters in Public Administration. The education I got from the community with HYV prepared me for my first job as an Americorps Vista in Puerto Rico.
My Vista assignment description was to be a developer of a student support project. My commitment with the program was one year and my job was to develop this program for young people who had enough money for tuition, but not for personal items, housing, and food. So I coordinated services and a campus kitchen so students can have at least a meal a day and food that they can take and cook in their campus housing.
I stayed in Puerto Rico for that year because of my commitment to my community there. I wanted to fight for my peers who were having problems and would drop out because they didn’t have what they needed. I wanted to make my alma mater better for everybody so that the students who didn’t have enough money could also graduate. There were a lot of dropouts because students didn’t have what they needed. I wanted my peers to graduate too. At that job I used a lot of the skills I learned at HYV. For example, volunteer recruitment and one on one skills.
I finished as a Vista in February 2016 and they offered to renew my assignment for one more year, but I thought, “I’m ready to go back to Connecticut.” So I looked for jobs and things that I have experience with. I was looking for non-profit jobs and educational jobs. That’s when I saw the opportunity with FRESH New London as a youth organizer and I thought “lets do this!”
Most of the stuff that they were looking for, I had experience with, but I didn’t have experience with the food system. I still thought I should try because one of the things I learned from HYV was to never doubt yourself, never give up on yourself, never judge yourself, and never tell yourself that you can’t do something.”
I sent my cover letter, my CV and my online profiles. It was a little difficult for me, I have always been confident. I thought I had a lower chance for being chosen because my interview was via Skype. At that point, I wasn’t confident enough to make the move to Connecticut. I got the interview and they asked me so many questions about organizing and I felt good, like “I’ve got this.” I had a lot of good references, so I think that helped. That’s another great thing about working with HYV, you make a lot of connections that can help you as an adult.
I went ahead and bought a ticket back to Connecticut before being hired because I didn’t think there was anything for me in Puerto Rico. I told Arthur [Lerner – outgoing Director of FRESH New London] that I was moving back and that I’d like to volunteer with FRESH even if I’m not hired and I was told that they had decided to hire me.
CSM: Why did the position at FRESH catch your eye?
EC: The youth work. They were ready to be on the next level of involvement with youth in the organization. They told me that they had a youth program and that they were wanting to increase youth commitment and recruiting. They asked me how I would improve that and I told them my ideas: going to the school, talking to the youth, getting youth involved in the issues. I want to be the Laura, the Chelsea, the Renita. I want to be like these people who inspired me as a youth when I was at HYV. I want to be that person to other youth. That’s what really inspired me to get this job.
I started working at FRESH on March 5th. I feel optimistic about the work that am doing, I am working with the youth forward for a better food system.
CSM: What are your hopes for your work at FRESH?
EC: My greatest hope for this work is that, not only myself, but the organization leaves a legacy, that when youth come to us, they learn about the food system, they want to make it better. They themselves become FRESH and go home and talk about the issues: why it’s fair to have supermarkets for everyone and to have youth involvement in decisions about food. They themselves become organizers and inspire people to fight for a cause.
CSM: How has your experience as a young community organizer at HYV impacted your work today?
EC: Being a really young person – I’m 23 years old – the youth relate to me because of my age and because I went to their high school. I can talk to them about their school issues. For me, it has been easy because we relate to each other. They are facing many of the issues that I have faced. I understand them because they come to me and say “Hey what do you think about using Snapchat and Instagram for this?” We have the conversations that youth can have with each other about technology.
I’m also pushing for more youth involvement on FRESH’s board and in different areas of the work. We need to ask youth where they want to be involved. Some will want to be in communications and marking, some in outreach and recruitment, and some in other areas.
Sometimes, being a youth myself, it can be a little difficult. Hearing Youth Voices was built with youth for youth. I was involved in building HYV. I was there as a volunteer in the first meeting. Being a youth on staff at a non-profit and talking to other organizations about myself. They ask me “how did you get to be a youth organizer?” For me, its easy to relate to the youth because I’m young. People will ask me “how do I approach youth? How do I make them feel comfortable with me? How can I get their trust?” I can’t necessarily relate to that because youth see me as young too.
CSM: What should we expect to see from FRESH in the future?
EC: In one or two years, I expect the work to be more youth oriented – to be an organization run by youth for youth to improve the food system.
There’s youth currently involved in the organization, but I want to build up that sense of youth spirit – meaning that youth make important decisions in the organization and serve on the board. That’s something that we’re trying to change. I always consult with the youth. I tell them that I’m here and you are too. I’m not more important just because I’m on staff. We’re friends and allies.
When you get the youth involved in the organization – not only with the youth program, but also with the important decision-making – they start to see that they also have power in the organization. If we’re going to empower the youth, let’s empower them in the organization first and then in the community.
CSM: What would you say to someone who is thinking about creating a pipeline from youth leadership to paid staff positions at their organization?
EC: A young person who’s been in your organization for a long time is an expert on the issues that you’re working on. You’re hiring an essential person – an expert. You’re getting a person who knows the organization and knows the way that you work. By hiring youth, you’re proving that you are doing a good job preparing leaders and that you’re hiring those leaders you prepare.