In early June, I had the honor of attending and serving on the Youth Leaders Council for the State of Young People Summit. This challenging and thought-provoking experience resonated with me and connected me with so many great agents of change across the country. The Summit brought together an intentionally diverse community of change-makers, representative of today's America, who created a safe and inclusive space in which ideas and personal experiences could be shared without the fear of judgment.
The State of Young People reinforced an important lesson for me: when working on challenging issues, we must stick to the value of servant leadership. We must work collaboratively and collectively to improve society. We must respect and value others’ perspectives and keep a solution-oriented mindset to foster a wide range of ideas and create a breeding ground for innovation.
The State of Young People Summit also highlighted some challenges facing youth in America. One of these underlying challenges is that for many young people across America, obtaining a seat at the decision-making table is difficult and, once achieved, it may not be the experience they thought it would be. The change-makers who participated in the State of the Young People Summit spoke of their varying experiences of gaining and keeping their seat at the table. For some, it was a smooth process, but for others, it’s been a grueling process of struggling to make their voice heard or of not being utilized to their full potential. Other changemakers experienced organizations that tokenize young people to give the appearance of being "progressive" and "woke." To avoid this fate and create a culture in which youth leadership is valued, we must include a wide-range of youth voices in the conversation equitably.
When talking about equity, we must ensure that women, minorities, and youth are kept at the forefront of the conversation and at the table. Unfortunately, a narrative has persisted in society that one requires a certain level of education, experience, or to be of a certain age to make an impact in their community. Often, youth are told "well, if you were…" or "if you could just wait until...", which furthers the pervasive problem of a board room of Fortune 500 corporations and non-profit organizations that look almost homogenous. We must combat this stereotype that youth, especially youth of color, lack the knowledge, skills, or ability to serve their communities.
At the State of Young People Summit, Mari Copeny affectionately known as "Little Miss Flint", showed just why ensuring the young people are included in the dialogue is so vital. Her courage, at only eight years old, to write to President Obama about the dire urgency of the Flint Water Crisis amazed me. Her bravery paid off: it is well known that her letter to Obama raised the national profile of the crisis, and ultimately helped lead to the authorization of $100 million to repair the Flint Water System. Mari did not let her age, race, or city of origin stop her from leading and becoming a true America Hero.
Mari’s story was just one of the many compelling stories told at the Summit of individuals taking a stand for a cause and, in the process, dispelling the stereotype that youth cannot make a difference. Their experiences should serve as an important reminder that we must always lift and support our youth while they are in turn, challenging and uplifting one another. We are truly more powerful when we empower each other and lift each other when we are down.
From the State of Young People Summit, it’s clear that the youth of today have the audacity to lead our country to new and unimaginable heights. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
It is the youth, the change-makers of today, with their unique experiences and skills, that have the power not to make a change tomorrow, next week, next month or next year but today! Whether you are a parent, youth leader, community leader, or advocate, the question is, do you have the audacity to lead by giving young voices a seat at the decision-making table?
Aric Wallace Hamilton recently graduated Pattonville High School where he was recognized as a Pattonville High School Student of Character and Most Valuable Pirate. As the result of rising racial tensions in his school community, Aric worked with the district leadership team and the building administrative team in 2017 to implement the restorative experience known as Courageous Conversation in which students engaged in difficult dialogues around race and poverty. In 2018, Aric co-authored a chapter for “Designing Successful Systems: Stories of Change” covering Pattonville’s journey towards creating equitable systems to enable ALL students to achieve at high levels. This year, he will attend Saint Louis University and pursue a degree in political science and education policy and launch a career towards creating more equitable systems for individuals across the nation.