Today's and Tomorrow's Trailblazers: The Youth Leadership Initiative

By Christie Vogt, Sprockets Communications and Network Associate -- April 1, 2014

“Bicultural efficacy. Anyone know what that means?” Hands raise. Standing up for other people’s cultures? Advocacy? “Positive bicultural efficacy,” Nou Yang, program director of Wilder Foundation’s Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI), explains, “is being effective at living in two cultures without having to compromise your sense of cultural identity.”

It’s a Tuesday evening and a roomful of YLI teens are finishing up their snacks and about to dive into today’s programming. As the announcements come to a close and they move on to their Cultural Exploration sessions, they’re asked to ponder their experiences managing movement between two cultures.

These teens are part of the dynamic Youth Leadership Initiative, a multicultural leadership program designed to help youth develop strong, effective leadership skills to work in diverse community settings. Sixty-five youth ages 14–18 who live in Saint Paul or the east metro area make a one-year commitment to the program (but for many, one year isn’t enough).

Four program components make up YLI: Leadership Retreats, Action Teams, School Support, and Cultural Exploration Sessions – the programming for today. For these sessions, youth meet in culturally specific cohorts (Hmong, African American, East African, Karen/Karenni, and multicultural) to explore their culture and heritage and its impact on their leadership style and personal development.

Youth Leadership Initiative

Many students are at home diligently studying for final exams this week, so smaller numbers today means that all the cultural groups (minus Hmong) are coming together to hear from guest speakers Captain Brown and Lieutenant Brown -- Tuskegee Airmen and World War II U.S. Army Air Corps reenactors who pay tribute to black soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Hmong group is upstairs discussing intergenerational conflict. A “What I Hate” list is on the board: when parents compare others’ achievements, gender roles, lecturing, lack of independence. But now the students have moved on to a gratitude activity. What are you most grateful to your parents for? One student speaks about being raised by a single mom – “She struggled so much and that’s why I’m here today” – and hearing stories of his grandma running through the forest during the war.

And what do you want your parents to know about you? “I’m not as strong as I come off to be,” the oldest son adds. What do you wish your parents did more of? “Trust me more in general…[and know that] I’m always going to have my family as my driving force.” When it comes to talk of his father, with whom he never had a connection, he simply wants him to know, “I am satisfied with my life...He doesn’t need to feel guilty.”

Youth Leadership Initiative

After pairing off to discuss these questions, the group comes back together to share. Several of the teens talk about how their moms worry about their children living without them, if they’ll be okay on their own when they pass; “I need to show her that she can leave with a peaceful mind,” one student declares. “Is that a Hmong thing? Parents threatening to die?” Laughter all around.

Why is all this important? Eric Ly, their Cultural Coach, notes the prevalence of mental health issues in the Hmong community, due largely to the history of war and poverty that has affected many families. “When you are vulnerable to your parents, this is how you solve intergenerational conflict,” Eric advises. He challenges the students to ask questions intentionally and to share the note cards they’ve created today with their parents.

As a closing, each person picks a word from a pile on the table to describe how they feel after this talk. Determined - “because identity is really important and this is where I feel I can be myself.” Satisfied - “because we’re talking about things you wouldn’t usually talk about under normal circumstances.” What should we talk about next time? “Religion. Interracial dating. Superstitions. Personal stories of the group. Leadership, what does it mean to be a leader, what does it mean to be a Hmong leader?”

Youth Leadership Initiative

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It’s Wednesday, Leadership Team night. The team is made up of Youth Mentors and Emerging Leaders, all prior YLI participants, who develop, implement, and deliver program curriculum for multicultural retreats in partnership with staff.

Before two of the Youth Mentors co-lead a retreat planning process, the group begins with a “Wheel of Life” inventory representing how each person spends their time and energy, followed by a “Personal Values” checklist. The activity is about “being in tune with what you really care about.”

One Youth Mentor narrows her values down from a list of 18 to Achievement, Learning, and Integrity. It “feels like the end of the world” when she doesn’t sense achievement in her life, but when she does, “it gives [her] the energy to keep on.” In the group discussion, one YLI’er reflects that the activity made her want to “value the things [she] didn’t choose.” It was a “reality check” which made her wonder, “How come I don’t value those things as much as others?”

In another room, the Emerging Leaders have covered the walls and table with ideas about the Leadership Team selection process, expectations and accountability, and team-building ideas. Peevxwm, a returning YLI’er, explains how he got involved in the program. “I was forced actually,” he admits. But after getting acquainted, he was grateful for his stepmom’s prodding: “Dang, how come I didn’t know about this earlier?”

Peevxwm - Youth Leadership Initiative

On the importance of out-of-school time opportunities like this one, Nell Goepel, YLI’s Community Leadership Program Associate, raves about how students acquire and strengthen skills like self-efficacy, confidence, communication, cultural awareness, time management, and organization. “We have so much faith that that transfers into all aspects of their life.”

“YLI changes you,” Peevxwm reflects. He’s learned that “others’ ideas matter as much as yours… with many points of view, it’s an easier way of getting things done.” He adds that in YLI “you learn that not all stereotypes are true because everybody is different and everybody’s the same.” Speaking of stereotypes, Peevxwm asserts, “Youth may not be considered the smartest people in the world, but they’re the next greatest thing in the world.” So, what’s this leader’s post-college Plan A? “Living at 1600 Penn Avenue.”

It’s closing time in the Emerging Leaders room. “What legacy do you want to leave this year?” Nou asks. “That everyone has the potential to become leaders and change begins with you,” one YLI’er offers, received with ooh’s and aah’s. “That YLI is not just [staff and volunteers], YLI is yours,” Nou contributes. “This is your house...this is you coming home.” Eric Ly, YLI’s Youth Development Program Assistant, jumps in, “That YLI is a lifestyle…which I hope everyone carries with them for the rest of their lives.”

“I want to leave a legacy that YLI is a safe place where you can say whatever you want...an open place [where you] can feel free to talk to anybody,” a teen adds. A voice from across the table emerges: “Be proud of who you are no matter what. Before YLI, I was scared to speak my [native] language in front of people...YLI is you, I’m YLI, you’re YLI...wherever you go you’re spreading the word.”

Sally Brown, who helped launch YLI in 2006 and continues to be involved, hopes that the legacy of YLI is “creating a space for young people to realize the power and beauty within them.” A young woman adds to that thought, “Don’t wait for change to happen, grasp for it.”

Youth Leadership Initiative

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As a late March snowfall blankets the sky, teens come through the door, a bit damp but ready to roll. Thursday is Action Team night. In Action Teams, YLI’ers do research on topics that matter to them, assess the need, and then decide what kind of impact they want to have. It’s an important day for the Action Teams that submitted grants for funding through YLI’s Community Advisory Committee; they’ve received their proposals back with some revision requests. For many of the youth, this was their first time submitting a grant proposal.

This year’s Action Teams include Education, Environment, Housing/Homelessness, Social Media, and Youth Participatory Evaluation. Over in the Social Media room, they’re divided into three subcommittees -- bullying, culture/race, and body image -- which will each create videos to be shared on social media. The culture committee will interview YLI’ers about stereotypes. The body image committee is bringing male perspectives into the female-dominated subject, as well as promoting the refrain “Nobody notices but you (most of the time).”  The bullying committee is capturing bullying stories to then turn into a rap. A member explains, “Bullying is a big part of social media...since I’ve been bullied, I feel I could do something to stop it a little.”

Down the hall, the Homelessness Action Team is working on a multifaceted project involving raising awareness, collecting donations, volunteering, and connecting with their legislators. In another room, the Environment Action Team has just signed up for a Harriet Island clean-up. They’re also deciding to which environmental group they should donate their upcoming fundraiser proceeds and figuring out the logistics of a tree planting day. The young man facilitating keeps the team on track, “Let’s decide this now. We have eight minutes.”

The clock is ticking and all the teams have to resubmit their grant proposal by the end of the night. The energy throughout the building is electric, focused, earnest.

Another week is coming to an end at YLI. Their May graduation is quickly approaching; when a young woman realizes this, she shrieks and looks around the room, “I’m gonna miss you guys so much!” But like Eric said, the hope is that YLI is a lifestyle that “everyone carries with them for the rest of their lives.”

Youth Leadership Initiative

Visit YLI’s page in the Sprockets Program Finder for more information; applications for next year will be accepted through October 10, 2014.