Stop for a moment and reflect upon the earlier days of your community work and the related responsibilities you held. What opportunities and risks did you take, and who offered them? How did you learn what it takes to lead within our sector? We talked with four remarkable young leaders who are deeply involved in community work: Damon Butler, Ravi Dixit, Trinh Nguyen, and Mariama White-Hammond. They shared how they prepared for their leadership positions and offered powerful insights and reflections on the core values, supportive practices and future approaches the sector needs to foster youth development. Here we present a few of their thoughts. If you want to hear more about what young people think, go ask them.

“Young people need to have some kind of political analysis to deal with the world.”

“Leaders of organizations need to convey the broader social context of the organization’s particular work by sharing the social history behind it. Young people need to analyze and critique the patterns and learn together what actions may be possible for change. This connects their own places to the larger social world.”

“I remember sitting in a room with other teens, talking about the government, the voting system, the political systems. These conversations helped me understand why my neighborhood differed from the one two blocks away—where people had more public services and where the cops were more likely to stop you when you’re playing in their streets.”
“I didn’t know much about what Native Americans, other Asian Americans, or Latinos were organizing about. I just knew about the black community. My experiences with those other communities really helped me to see there is a collective vision.”

“When I was thirteen in a youth development program, I read for the first time about organizing and the civil rights movement—not just what happened, but what it felt like to be in it, down to an individual campaign. That gave me a whole new structural understanding of why oppression happens, why it stays that way and what is required to change it. The world changed in my eyes.”

“Young people have a right to be involved in things about their lives. Youth don’t have all of the answers, but half the others don’t either.”

“Having the belief that young people can do something by themselves is important. We started a program called ACTION, Achieving Community through Involvement in Organizing Now. Only young people worked on it. The executive director didn’t even come. She’d push us to articulate our efforts and I’m sure she was frustrated. It died, died, died. You learn a lot from falling flat on your face!”

“Young people have to learn how to run and function in campaigns—I learned this in college and it was invaluable; you learn how to focus on an issue and not get distracted.”

“Being younger and having a definite expectation of performance was important. Older people I worked with, like college students, expected that I perform at the same level as everyone else.”

“You have to learn how to say, here’s the problem, here’s the solution, and do it.”

“Having the opportunity to produce something for the community gives young people a sense of power that does not typically exist in our society.”

“I did some strategic and statistical analysis of race in the news media. Being armed with statistics, we could move beyond the good heartedness of people to convince them that a real problem existed and perhaps there’s a better way.”

“Being a training ground for emerging young leaders is about giving them the space and respect to do what they think is best—and those might not be the best choices, but these learning experiences build leadership development—practically and spiritually.”

“Make long-term commitments to shaping young leaders so they can take over. Of course, delegation threatens power and privilege. When I stepped down as executive director, I wasn’t very happy. I wanted to stay and felt I earned this right, this respect. But I had to look at the emerging leadership coming and look at the collective need. That’s true empowerment.”

“Many adults are not comfortable letting power go. Like a bird, set it free. Instill your trust within young people that they can make the right decisions. No one is here forever.”

“Many nonprofits give youth flexibility to run programs, but structurally, look at the members of the board, look at the funding sources. I see organizations that support youth workers and provide flexibility, but it’s restrained within a box. Structurally, that’s a contradiction.”

“As I better understood the larger context of getting the work done in an organization, I now value my ability to do the day-to-day gritty crappy stuff. I understand this plays a role in the movement, even though it is not glamorous.”
“I learned that in certain forums you can openly share your political views, and other forums you should plant seeds and be more discreet.”

“If I’m not in an organization where I can speak freely to the financial guy, even if it’s just about how my feet itch—the simple stuff—it makes the larger stuff inconceivable. I think it’s a problem when people work together and are disengaged from each others’ lives.”

“Don’t be afraid to share personal experiences with young people. We begin to see him as a confidant, friend, beyond just a boss, an adult, their job title.”

“Young people are going through real life things. You can’t just talk to young people about their projects or work.”

“Help kids find their passion—if they discover it does not reside in your organization, let them go. Otherwise, you’re not really teaching them to become what the movement needs—people invested and skilled in what they are doing.”

“To increase the number of leaders, work with all of the young people in your organization. We don’t know who will want to stay in the sector. Some young people will be more eager to lead than others and that’s OK. But you can’t just work with the eager ones or with the ones with the dispositions to easily develop the skill sets. I was always a loquacious person; sometimes adults would say ‘we hardly need to put any work into you.’ This isn’t good enough.”

“Adults have to stop developing young people just to make the organization look good—stop looking for poster children, and let’s get serious about youth development.”

Damon Butler, 24, started with Artists for Humanity when he was 14. He is now their assistant artistic director ( Ravi Dixit, 22, started his community work at 15. He is now the U.S. coordinator of the South African Exchange Program on Environmental Justice ( Trinh Nguyen, 28, entered organizational life at 21 as the coordinator for the Coalition for Asian Pacific American Youth. She currently is the director of development and public relations at the Boston Women’s Fund ( Mariama White-Hammond, 22, started her work in youth organizations at 13. She is now the executive director of Project Hip Hop. ([email protected])