“Prepare us for the future we are forced to prepare for.” – A reflection on the transformational power of youth leadership

Photo of Hannah Howard

Hannah Howard

Evaluations Manager, Camp Fire

Hannah recently attended a Youth Voice initiative in Chicago focused on listening to young people about their ideas, wants, and needs for afterschool programs. She was incredibly moved by what they had to say and shared her reflections below:

“Prepare us for the future we are forced to prepare for,”

A young person commanded of the intergenerational room. She was speaking at the Powered by Youth Voice Initiative in Chicago that I had the opportunity to attend this past week. The initiative had an innovative focus on centering youth voices to advance new directions for the afterschool field. About 60 youth from communities across the nation convened in the windy city to present ideas for what their ideal afterschool program would look like. They then got to decide how $100,000 would be spent to support one, some, or all of the proposed ideas. The adults in the room were simply asked to listen while their messages rang loud and clear.

Angelica Portillo – Director of Advocacy and Workforce Initiatives, National Afterschool Association | Hannah Howard – Evaluations Manager, Camp Fire

The youth asked for spaces for exploration, with one presentation literally asking for a building with empty free space for youth to just “create”. You read that right- empty space. Let the youth fill it, instead of adults. They asked for spaces for collaboration, where an adult may lead a financial literacy class, and later a youth may lead a session sharing about their culture or about a social justice issue. There was a focus on youth choosing their own activities, and if nothing was of interest, to lead something themselves or with a peer. They also asked for spaces for healing, with multiple requests for therapy sessions to take place within afterschool programs and for Zen Rooms to be available with pillows and candles. In this program, you would be fully immersed in a community space that addressed your curiosities and encouraged your strengths, while holding everyone’s emotions and traumas tenderly in that same space.

That made me pause. The thought that all of me could be held in one space, and not be too much…THAT concept, made my eyes well up. 

There is something reminiscent about being in a teen-led space. It makes you recall your childhood, to put yourself in those shoes again. As slide after slide appeared, I reflected on what a space like that would have meant to me as a middle schooler dealing with bullying or as a high schooler with anorexia who felt a sense of loneliness in a world that seemed so small at that age. These young people so gently painted a world that was beyond our current reality, a visionary future of listening to each other and learning alongside each other. And it was in that gentle reminder, that I became overwhelmed.

Youth leadership is transformational leadership. 

December 6, 2022

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