By Sophia Garcia
From protests against gun violence to the Black Lives Matter movement, the nation has recently seen young people take the lead on a wide variety of social movements.
In Rochester, students have slipped pink slips inside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office door to protest cuts to education, received training from the New York Civil Liberties Union to become leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement and organized protests, rallies and marches to battle systemic racism.
But maintaining that collective youth voice takes a lot of effort-- and in some cases, money.
Children’s Institute, a Rochester non-profit whose mission is to partner with schools and local organizations to improve children’s overall well-being, is trying to raise money to continue programs aimed at helping high school students find their voices, elevate their voices and establish themselves as a driving force for social change. The institute runs a “Youth Leadership Council” that meets weekly to train a group of 10 students from seven Monroe County school districts to become leaders in their communities.
“Elevating youth voice … helps deconstruct preconceived notions and ideas that youth isn’t capable [or too young to] understand what’s happening in the world,” said Ashton Hall, 17, a graduating senior from Fairport High School, and a member of the Institute’s group of youth leaders.
Since this spring, members of the Youth Leadership Council have met several times to discuss how to increase activism among students and amplify existing efforts, as well as how adults-- including parents and school administrators-- can support young people.
The youth-led effort kicked off in late May with a virtual event hosted by the Children’s Institute and America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people.
About 175 participants, including teens and adults, discussed how young people can help each other to elevate their voices.
Among the student suggestions: creating clubs at their high schools to focus on issues that matter to them; joining community organizations that fight for causes they hold dear; and attending historically black colleges and universities where they can have a more welcoming environment to share and explore their ideas.
The students said their main outlet for expressing their ideas and connecting with others is the Internet. The world has become even more virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic and young people around the world have turned to outlets like social media to get their information and to raise awareness about the causes they care about.
They talked about the outsized role that young people have played in online movements, including the Black Lives Matter movement that rose to prominence during the summer months of 2020. For example, Hall, the Fairport High School student, is hoping to expand Black History Month beyond its traditional month of February.
“You can’t (have) that much influence in one month and think you’re going to get the whole thing,” he said. “That should be shown more love throughout each year throughout each month throughout each day because there’s so much to appreciate.”
The group also explored the role of adults, including parents, counselors and teachers, in supporting and amplifying youth activism.
Jayven Cruz, 16, a sophomore at the World of Inquiry School in Rochester, said it’s important that adults accept that they’re not always right, and that being vulnerable can improve adult relationships with young people.
“For teachers— if a student calls you out on something, it’s okay,” he said. “Because if a student never calls you out on something you’ll never know if you made a mistake or if you did something wrong.”
Brian Brooks, the father of a Rochester-area high school student, said adults too often fall into the trap of thinking that they know more than their children because they’ve lived longer and experienced more things. But he’s come to realize that way of thinking is outdated and that children are exposed to different experiences that require different solutions, he said.
“Sometimes it’s better when you let them lead,” Brooks said. “It’s hard as a parent to do that. It’s letting up on the reins, letting them make decisions, accepting their decisions and not scrutinizing them the whole time. They learn more from the mistake in the moment than you could ever teach them just by leading.”
Throughout their work, students and adults involved in the Institute’s youth council have agreed on one point: youth’s voice is necessary in order to make change.
“Unless change happens with youth voice present at the table [...] then there won’t be a chance for transformation,” said Jessica Nordquist, the school climate and culture coordinator at Northeast High School.
On June 3, the youth leaders met to discuss ways to support their emotional wellness and with the Pathstone Foundation’s Antiracist Curriculum Project about the importance of creating curricula that promote social justice and equity while incorporating youth voice.
In addition to seeking funding to continue the youth leaders’ work, the Children’s Institute is “also working to build and strengthen partnerships within the community to ensure youth continue to have opportunities and platforms to use their voice,” said Andrea Bertucci, training manager for the Institute’s Whole Child Connection.