What happens when you empower young people to change the world? Amy Blankson has spent the last 20 years of her life answering that question. Here is her story—and her advice.
I was just 16 years old when I heard the call to help America’s young people succeed.
In 1997, I learned through my mayor’s office in Waco, Texas that the organizers of the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future were looking for youth delegates to join big names like General Colin Powell, President Bill Clinton, and even Oprah Winfrey in a national call to help support at-risk youth.
I naively thought, I’m a young person. I want to help America’s young people. I should go! So I picked up the phone and called my mayor’s office to apply. And to my surprise, I got accepted!
Sometimes we think about conferences as mountain-top experiences, opportunities to see the big picture, learn a few new things, and then return home to carry on with life as usual. The Presidents’ Summit was not that for me. Instead, it was the beginning of a 20-year study about what happens when you invest in youth, make them a priority and let them know that they are cared for.
A Crash Course in Civic Engagement
In the weeks leading up to the summit, I got an up-close introduction to the world of civic engagement and service. I met with the mayor of Waco to talk about long-term goals. I sat in the office of the city manager to discuss urban planning. I talked with leaders of local youth development organizations about how to improve outreach. I saw my first profit and loss statement and thought my eyes were going to permanently cross.
When I boarded the plane to Philadelphia with my delegation, I remember being handed a 10-inch stack of papers to “read up” on the nonprofit world, and I poured through the information. Who knew that there were literally hundreds of organizations dedicated to helping youth? I was so excited to learn about organizations like the United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. I knew how much they would mean to other young people I knew.
When I arrived at the summit, I immediately knew history was in the making. For the next three days, I heard from an all-star line-up of speakers, including Presidents Ford, Carter, Bush, and Clinton, who talked about the importance of putting America’s children first.
General Powell issued a call for every one of us to return home to our communities and share the messages we heard. Then, Oprah quoted the proverb, “If not you, who? If not now, when?”
I also met 150 other youth from all walks of life, who all shared a passion for setting America’s future on a positive course. We collaborated and networked and planned, setting the foundation for what would later become the National Youth Movement.
‘What’s a board?’
By the end of the summit, I felt the burning need to share what I’d learned with those who weren’t able to attend. Other youth needed to know that there were caring adults out there who wanted to help them succeed—and that there were key resources they could access to rise above their circumstances!
I returned home and spent the next four months organizing a summit just for youth, an event for 1,200 teens in Central Texas to learn about civic engagement. To my surprise, the message of service caught on. Each young person who attended agreed to complete 1,000 hours of community service, totaling 120,000 hours of service in just one year.
Senator Harris Wofford gave the keynote address at the conference, and that afternoon, he asked me if I would be interested in sitting on the Corporation for National Service board.
I asked, “What’s a board?” (Fortunately, my mom stepped in and said, “Yes, she would love to.”)
Just a few months later, I received my appointment from President Clinton to serve a five-year term. Yet again, my life was changed.
A Powerful Ripple Effect
My experiences at the Presidents’ Summit and beyond became the subject of my application to Harvard, my senior honors thesis on youth in governance, my focus in business school, my career trajectory in nonprofit management and philanthropy, and even the impetus behind my new book The Future of Happiness, in which I write about how we can consciously innovate and collaborate to create a better future for all.
For years I have wanted to reconnect with the organizers of the summit to thank them. Did they know what a tremendous impact that their efforts had made—for me and for others? While there were undoubtedly transitory economic and political forces that led to the creation of the summit, I know for a fact that the relationships and partnerships forged endured.
My Message to Young People Today
I’m so excited to attend the Recommit to Kids Summit in April. America needs to see the powerful ripple effect that comes from investing in young people and our future.
To the young people I’ll meet there , a few words of advice: Never let your age or inexperience thwart your enthusiasm to make a difference.
You don’t realize how much power you have. While systems change can seem overwhelming at first, the most effective change starts organically – with a single person having a single idea and taking a single action. Be motivated, be encouraged, be active in the pursuit of America’s promise. In 20 years, I hope to hear your story and celebrate how far we’ve come together.
This blog is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below:
Amy Blankson was one of the youngest delegates to the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future. She went on to co-found the Future of Philanthropy Conference at Yale University, and in 2007, co-founded GoodThink, a positive psychology consulting firm, to bring the science of happiness to individuals and organizations. Most recently, she was a featured professor in Oprah’s Happiness course.