Young People Discuss Youth Leadership at Youth Services Bureau Day at the Capitol
On April 21st at the Connecticut Legislative Office Building, more than sixty young people and adults representing the Connecticut Youth Services Association gathered to hear a panel of 7 youth leaders discuss their experiences working to create change in their communities. The panel was moderated by Kristin Mabrouk, head of the Naugatuck Youth Service Bureau and was one of the highlights of this year’s Youth Service Bureau Day at the Capitol. The panel included four representatives of local Youth Service Bureaus – Rachel Angel and Erin Hughes of Middletown Youth Services and Allison Tortorici and Dean Andrade of Naugatuck Youth Services – as well as representatives of three PFF Grantee Partners – Abby Currillo of CT Students for a Dream, Omyrah Lockhart of Grow Hartford, and Nylah Greaves of Hearing Youth Voices in New London.
These youth leaders brought their energy, humor, and unique perspectives to an engaging conversation about leadership, adultism, and social change. One thing the panelists had in common was a passion for making change around the issues they cared about. However, their interests represented a range of issues as diverse as the experiences of young people across our state including school pushout, expulsion and suspension rates, school food quality, food insecurity, institutional aid for undocumented students, and youth enrichment.
There was strong consensus among the group about the importance of involving young people in politics. Dean Andrade of Naugatuck Youth Service Bureau gave a passionate endorsement of youth as “essential assets for assessing the main concerns facing our hometowns today.” He pointed to history as evidence of this saying, “In all other significant social reforms from the past, young people have been involved and will surely be present in the future.” Dean went on to cite and endorse Poet, Gil Scott Heron’s, famous declaration that “the revolution will not be televised,” adding “the revolution will certainly not be televised, it will be broadcast in 10 ADP high definition through a livestream online as a youth eradicates past draconian law.”
Though they agreed on the importance of youth involvement, panelists shared a host of barriers that prevent them and their peers from engaging with the political process. One thread that ran through many of their responses was adultism, which colors the way adults view young people and their potential to make valuable contributions to society. Nylah Greaves of Hearing Youth Voices outlined some of the mixed messages youth receive from adults as they try to participate in the political process, “Adults constantly bring youth into politics, but the second that youth have something to say for themselves, they push it away, they lean back, they’re like ‘Maybe you should just sit back in the corner and be quiet. Just wait till we tell you what to say.’ We want youth to be more involved in politics, but we’re not welcoming to youth in politics.” Dean seconded Nylah’s comments adding, “Quite a few young individuals possess the creativity, and ingenuity to implement progressive domestic policy yet, far too many are being obstructed by ageism from adults, flawed voting laws, shortcomings in our mandatory civic education, and lack of accessibility.”
In perhaps the most exciting moment of the conversation, panelists grappled with the tension between adapting to adult spaces and asking adults to make spaces more welcoming to and inclusive of youth voices and experiences. Rachel Angel and Erin Hughes of Middletown Youth Services spoke to their experience working with a group of their peers to improve school food, highlighting the importance of being informed and remarking on how much easier it is to accomplish their goals when they “act like adults.” Moderator Kristin Mabrouk responded by acknowledging the validity of both approaches and the unique insights youth bring to the table. Dean agreed and posed the question, “what if we have some of the adults also act like sixteen year old teenagers?” Nylah added, “One of our biggest challenges was figuring out how to get the adults on the youth’s level.” Underscoring her point, she quoted conscious rapper, Common’s, line in Glory, “It takes the wisdom of the elders but the young people’s energy to make a change.”
Reflecting on the impact youth leadership has had on them as individuals, panelists talked about the ways they have seen themselves grow and change as a result of stepping outside of their comfort zones. Rachel spoke about how her group’s campaign for better food options helped her to recognize how fortunate she is and underscored the importance of their campaign. In a meeting with Rosa Delauro, she and her peers learned about how food insecurity impacts some of her classmates, “When I first heard this, I thought, “We realized what we were doing was important because two thirds of our school was on free and reduced lunch; because those two meals – those are the only meals that they’re going to get . . . So it should be good and it should be of a good quality.”
Abby Currillo of CT Students for a Dream spoke to the struggle of being the only Latina at her private school and how her work as a youth organizer helped her find her voice.
“I feel empowered and I feel grateful, and I feel strong. Finding something that I was passionate about made me eager. I wanted to share it with everybody and also stand up for myself at school.”
Omyrah Lockhart of Grow Hartford explained how working with her organization has changed her perspective on life and motivated her to work for a change.
“I started to look at everything in a whole different way . . . I started seeing oppressions . . . I started to realize that people should be fighting for everything that they want.”
As the panel drew to a close, youth leaders left parting words of inspiration for their younger peers in the audience. Allison Tortorici of Naugatuck Youth Services urged young people to step outside of their comfort zones and take risks,
“Don’t hesitate to get involved and make bold decisions for yourself because it really will impact your future.”
“Don’t be afraid to look for allies and find people who are on your side.”
Watch the full video of the conversation here