There is a world of difference between Youth Leadership and “youth voice” or “youth engagement.” Mountain Coalition for Youth is a local community organizing effort that aims to create a healthier, happier, more just context for young people in the Nederland area. Youth Leadership Academy is not just a coalition member, we develop the youth leaders this organization needs. You may note that the coalition includes adult local leaders and educators and ask whether these leaders are not adequate. Perhaps these adults’ expertise makes them the ideal leaders.
If we look back at social movements that have made big, durable, structural change, one thing that they all have in common is that they were led by the people most impacted by the issues they were taking on. Laborers won the their own rights, the Civil Rights Movement empowered not only Black community leaders but, through advocacy, civil disobedience, and direct action, everyday people impacted by racism, segregation, and Jim Crow. Everyday members of the queer community won their own rights.
Sometimes these movements still exclude or silence portions of the populations they represent. The victories of these movements remain incomplete to this day, due to that exclusion. Sometimes influential people have taken the spotlight, and are the only ones we learn about in school. But none of their accomplishments would have been possible if the people closest to the problem were not the ones taking action.
If we learn the lessons of history and experience, we understand that youth are best situated to chart the direction of solutions for their own issues and that the most compelling advocates are those with the closest, most personal relationship to the problems at hand. Parents and guardians, too, must lead. They care for their children and field numerous obstacles and challenges in our community on behalf of their children. Nobody knows better what families need than children, youth, and parents or guardians. When changes are implemented by individual institutional leaders alone, any gains made are vulnerable to turnover in administrators and officials. When changes are implemented by the community, they are durable.