Around the Institute

What Does it Mean to ‘Empower’ Youth?

April 13, 2016  • Andrea Boakye & Carmen Procida

The Aspen Challenge — launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation — provides a platform, inspiration, and tools for young people to design solutions to some of the most critical issues humanity faces. The program engages leading global visionaries, artists, and entrepreneurs to issue real world challenges to teams of students.

Twenty teams from Chicago Public Schools will compete with each other and present their solutions for a chance to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here, Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) staff members Andrea Boakye and Carmen Procida define youth empowerment and explain how the Challenge prepares students to be leaders and problem-solvers.

Today, youth in America are making strides to change the world around them. From powerful social media movements, to political organizing and protesting on the ground, the voice and passion of young people have convinced society to take us seriously.

One major component in youth engagement that is overlooked is youth empowerment. When youth are “empowered,” they have the skills, critical awareness, and opportunities to positively impact their own lives and the lives of other individuals, organizations, and communities.

To truly empower youth, our society has to be very intentional about the way youth are incorporated into communities and organizations. Empowering youth means to:

  • Include youth in decision-making processes
  • Honor the youth voice
  • Understand and implement their honest opinions and ideas
  • Be willing to share your adult power and privilege in order to make the community a better place for both young people and adults alike

Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) is a national nonprofit working to create just and thriving communities — and empowered youth are a crucial part of our staff. Fifty-two percent of our staff are high school students who work part-time in decision-making capacities toward all critical functions of the organization, including strategic planning, program design, trainings, fundraising and hiring. By engaging youth in all aspects of the work, YES! and its partners become more equitable, creative, and powerful at creating community solutions.

As young adults, we have had a positive impact through our work with YES!. We work to implement local and statewide policy and changes that impact our communities and improve adolescent health outcomes. We also provide extensive training to our peers on how to implement sustainable solutions based on the needs they identify in their own communities.

It’s clear that providing youth with the tools for empowerment through these programs can yield effective, real world change. For example, in the past few 5 years YES! participants have gone on to:

  • Create successful farm-to-school programs and school gardens
  • Add healthy vending machines to schools
  • Redesign school cafeterias to make fresh, healthy foods easy to grab on their way through the line
  • Advocate for free or increased access to school breakfast for all students
  • Implement 100% tobacco-free school legislation and smoke-free bars & restaurants in North Carolina
  • Develop a partnership to increase transit services and representation for riders that need access to public transportation.

YES! is currently partnering with the Aspen Challenge in Chicago to challenge high school students to go into their communities and create sustainable solutions to address food injustice. With the Aspen Challenge, youth lead the charge, empowering residents and peers to advocate for an issue selected by the students. This year in Chicago, five school-based teams selected YES!’s challenge:

We challenge you to expand the market of fresh, nutritious and affordable foods through mobile markets, farmer’s markets, school markets or corner stores in underprivileged areas. You are the bridge between farms and neighborhoods that will empower and enhance communities.

This work will not only improve the health of the residents, but it has the potential to advance the economic vitality of the community as well.

The Aspen Challenge is a prime example of effective youth empowerment: it provides inspiration and a platform for young people to address pressing issues, it provides support and resources for young people to take action, and it focuses on building whole and engaged communities.

Young people across the country are excited to be engaged and involved in bettering their communities. In 20 years, as we continue to empower a new generation of students, we expect to see even more positive changes in communities across the country with your help. How do you intend to create space, allocate resources and provide opportunity for young people to be change makers?