A Youth Coalition… How do we get there?

January 30, 2020

Three VISTAs’ Experiences Building a Youth Coalition, By Bronte Nevins, Imari Alvarez, and Mattea Keister


This year, the three of us are serving as CCMA AmeriCorps VISTAs at Central Kenilworth Avenue Revitalization Community Development Corporation, otherwise known as CKAR, as the full name is a mouthful. CKAR is a non-profit that works on community and economic development, workforce training, environmental sustainability, and advocacy in Greater Riverdale. 

You might be wondering “How does a youth coalition fit into all this?” Or even, “What the heck is a coalition?” Or more importantly, why did three CCMA AmeriCorps VISTAs, fresh out of college, decide that on top of all of the other community engagement they were doing, they needed to dive into unknown territory to figure out how they were going to build a youth coalition? 

Well, I think it’s safe to say we are still trying to answer some of these questions ourselves. One thing we have figured out is what a coalition is, and how we can utilize our resources (think free food) to bring people together. Over at CKAR, we have already created a coalition of community leaders that are meeting regularly, creating their own leadership infrastructure, and identifying issues and projects they want to champion. 

After surveying a group of high school students about the problems they face in the community, the most common question we were asked was how they could stay involved in improving their community. A student came up to us, brimming with ideas for new programs that could help the community. “We don’t have anything to do here,” the student whispered. “We could have a theater. Or buildings for dance and art. Or a community computer lab. Or at least more greenery.” An idea sparked. We could go further than surveying young people, we could mirror our successes with adults and create a youth leaders coalition! 

Today, we wanted to share three stories from our initial efforts in beginning a youth coalition. 

The Doubtful Students

Imari Alvarez, CCMA Workforce Training and Development AmeriCorps VISTA

On December 12, we visited the Liberty’s Promise afterschool program at Parkdale High School to begin the process of involving youth in community change. Their first task was to create a flyer for an upcoming workshop, where students would discuss issues facing their community and create a vision for the future of their community. With the promise that the winning flier would be posted in the school and with Chick-fil-A gift cards on the line, the students rushed to their groups, hoping to get the prize. 

With almost everyone collaboratively creating their flyers as though they were designing a masterpiece, one group stuck out. In fact, they seemed unbothered by the assignment. Assuming that they were stuck, PTSA President Pastor Mike from Solid Rock Church went to them and asked them if they needed assistance. One student in the group asked, “Why should I care about drawing this flyer?” The Pastor responded by saying “So that you guys can come together and discuss your needs so that change can happen.” I overheard the conversation and asked, “If you were able to change something, what would it be?” The student nonchalantly said “Everything.” “What is everything?” I replied. From this question, the floodgates of complaints were opened. 

The other students from the group jumped in and exclaimed “The school looks like a jail cell, the cafeteria serves expired food and it’s horrible, who does that? We have no job readiness skills when we leave school!” I explained “You see, your pressing issues are valid and need to be heard. Having your peers and the community be a safe place to discuss these issues and provide solutions is the first step to change.” I continued to explain that this change is going to come since a big company has the funds to make these changes. I’ve given this speech to many adults and was met with a great reception, but the students looked unimpressed and puzzled. My wonderful speech was met with uncertainty and doubt. It looked as though it was hard for the students to fathom the fact that someone from somewhere willingly wanted to give money to help their community. 

The same student from before unenthusiastically said, “Nothing is going to change, my aunt who graduated from this same school back in the day said the problems I am facing, are the same ones she faced.” After that comment, the Pastor and I fought furiously to convince the students by giving examples of other places that have done the same visioning process and produced results. 

After the conversation, I went with the Pastor to the front of the class. The Pastor looked over at me and said, “Now isn’t this the hardest group of people you faced to convince them about making a change in their community?” I looked over at the Pastor and replied, “Yes, yes it is.”

The Shy Leader

Bronte Nevins, CCMA Affordable Housing AmeriCorps VISTA

Equipped with snacks, we returned to Parkdale High School in early January. We were promised by Pastor Mike that over twenty students had expressed interest in energizing their classmates about the initiative, but watching a couple of students slowly straggle into the room, I suddenly felt uncertain. Why should the students give up their afterschool time just on the hope that this promised change was more real than what had come before? Suddenly, a rush of students pushed their way through the door. Twenty-five faces stared up at us and a hush fell over the room. What could we say that would be enough?

Surely listening would be better than anything we could say. Allie O’Neill, our partner from Neighborhood Design Center, gave a brief explanation of how to listen and encourage others to talk. Then the adults in the room shut up. The students got into small groups, clustering around large blank pieces of paper. One student was supposed to lead the discussion, with another taking notes. 

I hovered near a group that seemed slow to get started. The leader shyly asked her friends what home meant to them. She stood behind her friends, with their backs facing her. The students were enthusiastically discussing the meaning of home, but talking over each other and ignoring any sort of direction she was trying to give. After a few minutes of this, the leader gave up and told the notetaker she should just ask the questions herself. I itched to get involved. I could lead this conversation! We were getting off track over here! No. No. I stepped back. They could figure this out. 

The practice workshop continued, with the students combining into ever larger groups to experience leading bigger and more unruly conversations. In the group I was observing, I was worried to see the original leader of the first discussion being swallowed up. We seemed to be losing the opinions of the shyer students. Maybe we had picked the wrong path when we decided to go with peer facilitation, maybe it would have been better to just have an experienced adult lead the discussion and have the students only give their opinions. One student was almost in tears over a spelling mistake she had made while being the notetaker.

We came to the last practice discussion, where all of the students were supposed to be sharing their thoughts at once. No one wanted to volunteer to lead all twenty-five people. Suddenly, the shy girl who had disappeared in her first discussion emerged. She would be the leader! 

Structural Class Analyses of Inequality… in the Gym 

Mattea Keister, CCMA Health and Wellness AmeriCorps VISTA

As the day of the visioning workshop approached, I began to worry that no one would show up. Then I began to worry that too many people would show up. Would our trained leaders have confidence in their abilities and facilitate a great workshop? I just wasn’t sure. The Parkdale PTSA president was our biggest advocate, hanging the flyers the students designed and notifying others that our workshop was taking place.

The day of the workshop arrived and we still didn’t know what we were walking into. As I lugged a case of small waters into Parkdale High School, an intense bout of the butterflies hit me. Students began trickling in and I was relieved to see our student facilitators approach us and ask what they could do to help set up. New faces also began joining us, hesitantly holding up flyers and asking if they were in the right place for the workshop. “What exactly are we going to be talking about?” asked one student, as Allie discussed the need to be vulnerable and listen to others’ opinions considerately. 

Students divided into two groups huddled around two sets of poster boards with the questions ‘Home is?’ and ‘A great neighborhood is?’ and the instructions from Allie to “go ahead and get started, facilitators.” I watched with apprehension as one of the groups stood in awkward silence for a couple of minutes. I debated offering input to the group, but before I could say anything, one of the facilitators excitedly said “why don’t we begin with an icebreaker? We can introduce ourselves and say how we felt coming here today.” I was floored, we hadn’t mentioned ice breakers the previous week in the training. I could see the students relaxing as they got to know everyone in the circle and had the space to say if they were excited, nervous, or ‘just vibing’ as they prepared to answer the questions. 

Again, and again, I was left in awe of these students as they demonstrated how in tune with their community they are and what they consider the most important issues to address. Asked what makes a good hangout place, the students first began by listing places that they currently like. “Starbucks, Six Flags, Skyzone, the bowling alley…” But what makes these places special, the students began asking each other. “Starbucks has…an ambiance,” announced a teen in a white hoodie. “It’s a place where you can meet new people, but also just hang out with your friends,” said another. “And there are jobs there. Jobs for teens too.”

Suddenly the group began engaging in a structural analysis of issues with economic opportunity in their community. This was more impressive than the information we were getting out of adults at other visionings we had led. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised as I am closer in age to these teens than many of the adults I regularly have conversations with. It just goes to show that we are quick to underestimate a demographic that has vast creative potential and unique knowledge. 

The statements and questions from students at the end of the workshop that will stick with me as we go forward planning this youth coalition are “I had fun doing this today,” “I think about these things all of the time, so it’s nice to talk about them,” and finally “when are we doing this again?”

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