It’s easy to look at the skinny jean-wearing, incomprehensible music-listening, “on fleek” youth of today and say that they’re a lost generation. The narrative is nothing new—it’s what our parents have said of us, and what our parents’ parents said of them. But recently, it was made very clear to me that our youth are far from “lost;” that they’re more aware than ever of the issues affecting their communities and country (much thanks to social media, in my opinion), and are full of innovative ideas that can have a huge, positive impact on both.
I looked at my calendar on a recent Monday morning and shook my head. I didn’t know why I’d agreed to volunteer for so many different events in one week. Little did I know that I was to be exposed to three groups of kids so incredibly talented, that I would be sharing their stories with my peers and thinking up ways to further contribute to their ideas and dreams days later.
On that Wednesday evening, I stepped into the auditorium of Lake Elkhorn Middle School in Columbia, Maryland, to speak to the participants of Ladies First and their families for their end-of-year program. Before I even hit the stage, the slideshow presentations and volunteer stories had me wishing that this program had been around when I was in school. These young ladies were being encouraged to set both social and academic goals, and were given the opportunity for personal growth through planned collegiate visits, community outreach, and leadership workshops that pushed them to go beyond their dreams to achieve their personal best. I spoke to them briefly and answered a few questions about my own experiences growing up, going to school, and starting a business; but I was even more impressed by the one on one conversations I had afterwards. It was refreshing to speak with young people who’d found a purpose so early and had made up their minds to make their goals real.
…it was made very clear to me that our youth are far from “lost;” that they’re more aware than ever of the issues affecting their communities and country, and are full of innovative ideas that can have a huge, positive impact on both.
Saturday morning, I was up bright and early to revisit my old grad school campus, American University, meeting up with the SHINE group (Shaping Healthy Identities through New Experiences), a program of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington, to participate in the Lead, Don’t Follow Teen Leadership Retreat. The goal of this year’s retreat was to spark the youths’ interest in technology with a purpose, hence the theme, #TechTurnUp. Over 45 young men in middle and high school were split up into groups, given a community project, and paired with professionals in web development, graphic design, social media, and 3D printing. Groups spent up to two hours with professionals at each station, and by the time I worked with my group, I was amazed at the fact that they’d already coded a pretty decent website, developed an app, and created a logo for their issue, ProjectGoTo, an initiative designed to bring adults who successfully made it out of the ‘hood back to mentor and work with young kids still in that environment. We discussed social media responsibility, created a Twitter account for the initiative, and talked about ways that it could be optimized to create awareness around the issues that youth are facing in their communities. Given resources and direction, these students were able to think through their ideas as a group, and apply technology to give their ideas a voice.
Sunday was the big finale, as I hopped off the Metro in Southeast DC and walked into Eastern High School to volunteer with the DC team of The Future Project for their end of year showcase, Vision2020. I was absolutely blown away by the poise, confidence, and openness of these high school students from three area schools who had come together to celebrate their year’s work. They showed off their talents and gave testimonies on how The Future Project has helped them overcome low confidence, abandonment, and a variety of issues from their pasts that had been hindering their success. But now they’re literally starting businesses, heading projects in their communities, doing well in school, and have a level of self-awareness that I don’t even see in most adults that I meet. I was blown away by the obstacles these students had overcome, and came to the realization that the youth aren’t lost at all…they just need someone to believe in them, to give them a safe space to be heard, to create, and to be innovative.
At the end of the program, not only did I have one of the young men teach me how to pop-and-lock like Chris Brown, but I made up my mind to consistently devote a portion of my time to mentoring youth. As cliché as it sounds, the youth really are the future, and we would do well to invest in them rather than criticize their opinions, exclude them from decision making processes, or downplay their ability to have a huge positive impact on our communities.