The Aspen Forum for Community Solutions works to engage all sectors of a community – nonprofits, businesses, philanthropies, and government – in order to make dramatic progress on various issues. Below, two youth advocates share their stories of working with Opportunity Youth at the Aspen Institute and the power of engaging young people.
The Power of My Voice
My passion is authentic youth engagement and advocacy. As a young leader, I understand the power of my voice, and its ability to influence the change that our country needs. My work revolves around ensuring other young people can do the same. When young people aren’t at the table influencing the decisions that impact their lives, futures, families, and communities, it is a disservice for not only the young person but also the entity in question, which misses out on valuable input.
It is a part of my life’s calling to advocate for spaces and places that allow authentic youth engagement, and working with Aspen has given me the space to live out the values I learned to love during my term as a public ally: continuous learning, innovation, diversity and inclusion, integrity, and collaboration.
Jamiel and I have been members of the National Council of Young Leaders and involved with the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions since the inception of the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund in 2012. The National Council of Young Leaders is a diverse body of young leaders from across the United States who advise policymakers on issues affecting low-income youth and their communities in both urban and rural areas. We brought our expertise to the OYIF, which aims to invest in the young people between the ages of 16 to 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market. Successfully connecting these young people requires community collaboration.
Though we have had two very distinctively different paths to success, the resilience and determination required to overcome systemic barriers, obstacles, and negative influences, coupled with our passion to make room at the table for other young experts, propelled Jamiel and me to commit to leadership development and search for the best ways to authentically engage young people.
We quickly realized that the Aspen Institute truly believed in the talents, abilities, expertise and voices of two former “opportunity youth.” In four years, we have both been supported in our development as leaders, and provided the resources to invest in the development of other young leaders. We’ve worked to organize a youth leadership trajectory, which works with grantee communities across the nation.
Being a part of the 2016 OYIF fall grantee convening, which was the largest gathering of youth leaders that we have ever had, was more than another opportunity. It was the physical manifestation of the vision Jamiel and I had shared with Aspen a few years prior. The OYIF leadership track has evolved into a robust learning community filled with passion, purpose, and a safe space to be uniquely you. With the state of our nation in so much turmoil, division, and tension, it was relieving to be in a diverse room of young leaders that could take a deep dive on issues such as police brutality, mass incarceration and killing of black men, trauma, and gender equity and equality, with openness, love, empathy, and understanding.
As we move into the next phase of the OYIF plan, my heart leaps with joy because I know this is only the beginning. More young people will forever be valued, appreciated, developed, and invested in, and ultimately forever changed for the better. Aspen has done just that for us.
Shawnice Jackson is a national leader, youth advocate, and community activist. As a founding member of the National Council of Young Leaders, Shawnice serves as a Leadership Council member with the OYIF.
Letting Passion Shine Through
Working hard for something you love is called passion. It makes the world go around. Often my passion can be seen, felt, and heard as I speak and serve. In my role as a fellow with OYIF Young Leaders, it’s difficult to watch my peers experience similar patterns when working in systems that have made it challenging to grow when on a pathway out of poverty.
I watch my peers as they navigate through and experience the OYIF movement while balancing their own personal lives. They deal with the challenges of transitioning superiors, the heartaches of lack of funding, their jobs being constantly in limbo, and sometimes lack of support due to capacity. We, OYIF young leaders, continue to do our work because of authentic love for it. If passion makes the world go around, then love makes it a safer place.
It has been three years since my previous job officially let me go because “my job/position was no longer needed.” In these past three years, I realized that no matter how much you advocate, serve, and give everything – sometimes it isn’t enough. But passion will supersede any obstacle as long as you continue to know your purpose. Service as an ally, and as a big brother to my OYIF family is my destiny.
That passion, that fire, you feel when you speak ignites from heart to heart. As we all develop as professionals, it is important that we all do what we can with what we have. With the work we do, don’t take it personally because it is not all about you. #powerTOthePEOPLE
Jamiel L. Alexander is a community organizer and national activist. He was presented the opportunity to serve and engage since the inception of OYIF, and is an advocate for his personal commitment to serve and help the 5.5 million opportunity youth.