by Jon W. Sparks
innovation: CHANGE: The youth-led social program working with students in grades 8 to 12, providing them with opportunities to become leaders who advance social justice through community organizing.
At BRIDGES, the idea is to push for a solution — and then push harder.
The nonprofit has long been focused on developing young people as tomorrow’s leaders, but the organization is finding that it’s imperative to let youth take on leadership as soon as possible.
“Several years ago we took a step back and looked at the Memphis community,” says Dana Wilson, vice president of the Bridge Builders youth program. “We saw the education landscape changing and daily lives of students changing, and realized it was important for us to re-evaluate how we work with young people and take it up a notch.”
That innovation is what bridges calls youth-led social change. “We allow young people to take the lead and commit themselves to youth and adult equity environments,” Wilson says. “We trust they have good ideas on how to make Memphis a better place and their ideas and voices need to be lifted up.”
It’s not just an exercise in having the kids write down some nice ideas. bridges — through its change internships — wants city leaders to listen and act on these youth-inspired proposals.
“We listened to young people and let them set the agenda to what the program could really do and seek to achieve,” Wilson says. “We ventured into new topics and areas, including youth and police relations and issues with juvenile justice, so they lean into that work and become involved in that.”
If the traditional approach is adults trying to fix the problems of youth, change changes that. “This is youth working to fix issues and systems that aren’t working,” Wilson says. “They set their own agenda and train us and community. No one else is doing that.”
While the young people have considerable latitude in creating their agendas, they’re not working in a vacuum. “The equity model requires we provide students with a lot of support and networking with other organizations on issues they’re interested in,” Wilson says. bridges connects the students with experts and ensures the focus of inquiry is on root causes. It helps determining what information is needed, where to find it, and gives the young people support in space and resources. “Students are capable of doing very profound work. They’re great researchers and motivated.”
The change program started some five years ago with about a dozen students. It has grown to 30 participants from grades 8 to 12 who spend about a year on the project.
It has worked with the Shelby County Schools, developed a blog, and is working on a campaign against sexual harassment and assault that seeks to create safe places and bases in schools. Students are also working with the Memphis Police Department on issues of youth violence.
One effort that has come out of change working with the Shelby County Sheriff’s office has been to create a group called Incarcerated Youth Speaking Out For Change. A group of young men in jail competed through essays and debates to share their insights on why they were behind bars, what they saw as the root causes of teen violence, and what changes could be made to prevent the violence.
IYSOFC’s members are sharing their insights, which include recommendations on how schools suspend and expel students, how job and intern opportunities might be increased, and ways of reforming juvenile offenders.
“It’s really invaluable when someone has real personal experience to back up what the research says,” Wilson says. “It’s pragmatic, knowing why something would or would not work and how it would resonate with young people. And who better to know that than young people?”
Wilson says that bridges feels strongly that this is crucial work. “We’re excited to deepen what we’re doing,” she says. “Part of our organization’s strategy is a full-time evaluator to figure out the metrics that indicate success for the program. We try to track students individually but also want to understand the impact on the community to guide our decisions moving forward.”
Students from this program, who help create an agenda and network with the community to implement a plan, are going to learn a lot. “And they will be really impressive when they sit down for college interviews.”
Eventually, Wilson says, bridges would like to see a youth action center, a hub where young people of varied interests can work with the support of adults who see youth as invaluable assets to community and are willing to give them space to experiment and create change we want to see. Says Wilson, “Not only will they grow up to be incredible leaders, but the world is going to be more just for young people.”
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