From marginalized youth to voices for change

“One small group of people will affect more. It’s inescapable.” Zion, 18

Youth prepare for a busy day at a summer retreat they set up for middle school students in their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. They chose the theme of the event — self-determination — to mirror the skills they’d been learning as participants in the ChildFund-supported Youth Ambassadors for Change program. Their goal? To get their younger peers thinking about the depth of their own power.

Remember the old adage “Children should be seen and not heard”?

Nationwide, we seem less inclined toward that archaic notion these days. As the recent surge of youth activism in our country shows, the ground is more fertile than ever for young people to raise their voices on issues that matter to them. But in many families, schools and communities, the idea that children only earn their voices after living a certain number of years is alive and well.

In Jackson, Mississippi, where ChildFund supports our local partner organization, Operation Shoestring, and its dynamic Youth Ambassadors for Change program, a group of teenagers wants that to change.

“I want to advocate on behalf of children everywhere. I feel like people everywhere should have the same basic rights. But for whatever reason, people don’t seem to see that. I think we can make them see that.” Joseph, 17

Joseph, a participant in the Youth Ambassadors for Change program, speaks in a meeting on Capitol Hill at ChildFund’s annual Advocacy Day in March 2017. The event brought Jackson youth to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the passage of the READ Act, which aims to increase access to education for children around the world. The legislation was signed into law in September 2017.

Mississippi holds one of the worst child poverty rates in the United States. Jackson, in particular, is one of the nation’s most economically distressed communities, according to a 2017 survey by the Economic Innovation Group. The deteriorating public school system has taken a nosedive toward outright failure in recent years. In this stressful environment, where school violence is common and dropout rates soar, young people are often viewed more as liabilities than as future leaders of the community. They are seen as rabble to be managed rather than as young citizens to be empowered.

The Youth Ambassadors for Change program, supported by a generous grant from the Tredegar Foundation, has encouraged 49 Jackson high school youth who would not normally participate in the civic process to raise their voices on issues affecting their schools and communities. The idea is to accomplish this through regular after-school and weekend gatherings that focus on skills building — everything from life skills like communication, problem-solving and peer mentoring to citizenship skills like public speaking, advocacy and media training. Practicing these skills, the youth gain confidence in themselves, strengthen their relationships with each other and crystallize the great hopes and frustrations of their lives into coherent points of view — all prerequisites for effecting positive change.

“I learned I want to be a voice for kids who feel like outcasts.” LaToya, 19

Ambassadors participate in workshops to build their leadership skills.

“We’re checking our adult privilege at the door and meeting the youth on common ground,” says Amber May, programs director for Operation Shoestring. In this case, “common ground” means a safe space for youth to explore their world, ask questions and listen to each other without fear of judgment. The Ambassadors’ initial meetings included self-reflection exercises that encouraged them to examine their own perception of themselves, especially in comparison to others’ perception of them. There was much discussion about the media’s narrow, negative portrayal of young people in Jackson — and the dangers of such a portrayal becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It made me appreciate the opportunity to rethink my own vision for myself — who I am, where I’m going.” -Anonymous Youth Ambassador

Ambassadors engage with middle school children during a retreat.

The Ambassadors expressed a desire to rewrite that script. Now, they’re developing into responsible, socially conscious citizens who care about their communities, and the adults in their lives are taking notice.

In April 2017, the superintendent of Jackson Public Schools resigned, and the school board announced its search for his replacement. Feeling that student voices were not being considered in the search, the Ambassadors used their new leadership skills to facilitate a series of “listening sessions” for small groups in each grade where students could express their opinions on the superintendent search, among other school-related issues. After gathering the students’ input, the Ambassadors analyzed the data and used it to make recommendations to the school district for changes.

For the students who participated, the sessions were relieving — a long-overdue opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings on the school system. For the adult facilitators and the school board, they were downright enlightening. The adults were surprised by the students’ level of understanding about how their schools operate and impressed by some of their suggestions for improvement, including one that popped up over and over again: the need for student representation at the school-board level.

“I was surprised how much the 9th-graders appreciated us coming and wanting to know what they thought. They said no one ever asks them.” Vleary, Youth Ambassador

Ambassadors plan a listening session to gather student input on the search for a new school superintendent.

In Mississippi, it’s illegal for students to become actual school board members. This didn’t deter the Ambassadors, who offered public comments at two separate school board meetings to advocate for a policy that would allow students to serve as representatives. On May 16, 2017, Jackson Public Schools officially adopted the new policy. Three of the Ambassadors were elected to represent their peers to the school board.

“I feel that students should be on school representation because, honestly, who knows how the students feel other than the students?” Jordan

Ambassadors pause for a photo at a youth participatory evaluation workshop. ChildFund staff traveled to Jackson to facilitate the workshop and gain student input on the effectiveness of the Ambassadors for Change program.

When the Mississippi Department of Education declared a state of emergency for Jackson Public Schools in September 2017, threatening a state takeover — a decision that was made, again, without student input — the moment was ripe for the Ambassadors to take action. Using the media skills they had learned, they wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper and conducted a press conference via Facebook Live urging the governor to give them a say in the matter. Several local news outlets covered the event, and the youth fielded their questions, demonstrating their poise, intelligence and capacity to be agents of positive change.

“We believe effective solutions lie with different approaches to improve our schools. We would like to see more innovation, have more opportunities to share our input and participate in designing and implementing those solutions. Our futures are at stake.” Dante, reading from the Ambassadors’ joint statement on the state takeover

While the fate of Jackson Public Schools is still undecided, the Ambassadors continue to advocate for children’s right to speak and be heard. They’re living proof that young people are unstoppable when they experience the power of their own voices. It’s just a matter of being invited to the table.

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We are advocates for children worldwide, working to ensure that they have what they need to live at their potential throughout their lives: safety, health, nutrition, opportunity and more.

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