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Youth Will Make Us Better

By Rich Bell on May 25th, 2014

When youth peer leaders in Fitchburg, MA got involved in the city’s park system, it sparked a newfound sense of pride and ownership in caring for the community’s assets, including a citywide Adopt-A-Park program. These passionate teenagers joined a powerful shift that is reshaping our nation. The largest and most diverse generation in American history, known as the Millennials, is rising to take its rightful place in our society. And they have a lot to offer!

According to a 2010 report from the Pew Research Center, Millennials as a group are “confident, connected and open to change.” These young people have a high and disproportionate stake in decisions that are shaping their communities. They are greatly motivated to learn and to develop the knowledge and skills needed to implement their ideas.

Youth can take local engagement to the next level. They have relationships and tools which extend their reach and can bring fresh perspectives and approaches to the work. For example, young people in Baldwin Park, CA joined with peers in South Los Angeles to create the website and their own anti-obesity social action network. Their model of creativity, action-orientation, interactivity and fun could reinvigorate many established health coalitions.

And youth are not just about social networking. They can provide quality assessment, communications support and effective public advocacy. Youth leaders in Charleston, WV and Rancho Cucamonga, CA assessed their cities’ parks using tools like computer mapping, Photovoice, surveys and environmental audits, and made recommendations to their local policymakers. Fourth graders in Rochester, NY created the influential “Lunch is Gross” video and helped picket outside their school district’s central office building for better school food. Jóvenes SANOS, a youth leadership group in Santa Cruz County, CA, helped win new policies such as the Healthy Food and Beverage Options at Santa Cruz Metro Facilities and the Greater Watsonville Master Bike Plan.

What these success stories all have in common is the consistent presence of supportive adults, programs and organizations behind the scenes who are committed to youth empowerment. “I’ve been part of Jóvenes SANOS for five years,” says member Julian Alcantar. “I joined because my sister and cousin had been part of Jóvenes SANOS back in 2007. They talked to me about it and told me how it felt good to be part of a positive change in our community. Even though our goal is about being healthy, I haven’t only learned about nutrition. I mean, yeah, I’ve lost 20 pounds…but I have also learned other stuff that can be helpful in my daily life from public speaking skills to policy advocacy and being a good role model and leader.”

The healthy communities movement benefits greatly from young leaders like Julian. As youth participate in our work, they also take ownership of their health, their own life choices and the future of their communities. This is key to the success of the changes we make today, because it will be their choices as much as their advocacy that will drive healthy community change.

A culture of health is a culture of opportunity and participation. Youth already know this. Adult leaders simply need to help them step up so they can show us what they can do!

How might you provide opportunity for young leaders to participate in an emerging culture of health?

Rich Bell

Senior Project Officer

Student of systems change and advocate of the small, slow and connected.