Young people under the age of 18 make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population, yet their voices are often limited by “an arbitrary line to adulthood” says Martin. Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) believes one of the keys to a more just and equitable community is equipping high school youth and their adult allies with the tools necessary to unite their communities and create positive change.
As a national nonprofit based in North Carolina, adult staff at YES! work alongside paid youth staff who are high school students between 14-19 years old, on community health issues that impact youth and adults. They work at the local and state level through a racial justice approach to reduce weight-related diseases, ensure access to health care, eliminate teen tobacco use, decrease substance misuse, and strengthen youth-adult partnerships so that youth can become the public health leaders of tomorrow. With this youth advocacy perspective, they train youth and their adult allies across the country on organizing and advocating for change in their communities.
“Youth are affected by policy change, but oftentimes aren’t involved in creating it,” says Pam Diggs, YES! Director of Programs and Racial Equity. “We create a vehicle and a partnership with them to be a part of the change they seek.”
“Not creating a space for youth to take part in these conversations would be detrimental to the process,” said Katie Spears Warner, Director of National Partnerships at YES!. She added that “if young people aren’t equal partners at the table, we will continue to have to do this time and time again.” According to Katie, their unique experiences and fresh outlook help them find creative solutions. YES! attributes their increased focus on racial equity to the young people on their team who challenged them to be clearer and more explicit about the issue – not only discussing and analyzing it, but addressing the root causes.
Recognizing the components of an equitable society meant they also needed to examine the root causes of inequity within their own organization. Last year, YES! underwent an assessment that identified opportunities to increase their internal capacity to lead systematic changes in racial equity. As a result of the assessment, YES! is now more racially conscious and applies an equity lens to their internal practices and external work.
Hiring, partnering, and contracting with individuals with lived experience and proximity to the issues of racial inequities increases YES!’s ability to create transformative impact. Job descriptions now include language about YES! as an inclusive organization, and job applications are reviewed blindly to reduce implicit bias creating a more equitable hiring process.
“If you want to work towards achieving health equity through a racial equity lens, you have to start inside and work your way out. If it’s not authentic and it’s not reflective on the inside, you’re going to go out and do further harm,” says Diggs.
“What would it look like to have a society where upon starting high school someone is teaching you that civic engagement is the standard and not an option?” asked Martin.
The YES! Youth Empowerment Model® is a three-pronged approach that engages young people to develop their personal skills, analyze the issues affecting their lives and communities, and participate in decision making and advocacy to create community change. YES! supports a network of youth and adult teams across the country as they implement the model. The YES! Youth Network was relaunched and supported in part by an incubator grant from Voices for Healthy Kids. Over the past two years, youth and adult staff from YES! supported 34 systems, policies and environmental changes, across 13 states, through 50+ partners and projects, impacting 2,701,839 people.
“The system inadvertently leaves youth out of policy work and these conversations, so of course it’s the default to think young people don’t care,” said Warner. “That is a mistake – they very much care and are very interested.”
Jabari Brooks, a YES! graduate who has been involved since his sophomore year of high school echoes the same thoughts. “They (youth) are not going to care about issues if you constantly push the stereotype that people under the age of 19 are apathetic. Then suddenly they hit 19 and ‘I’m an adult! I suddenly care.’ That’s not how life works.” Brooks is a sophomore in college and is still working at YES!. He plans to attend law school after college and focus his career on civil rights. Having facilitated trainings and oriented incoming staff in his role at YES!, Brooks knows the organization has empowered him with the skills and critical thinking that will be valuable throughout his life. But most importantly, he understands how his outlook on life has been indelibly changed.