During the summer of 2017, Cameron Hill worked in a research lab at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis designing and conducting experiments. Walking home one day in the oppressive heat of the Missouri summer, perspiration dripping down her face, Hill pulled out her phone and scanned the local news. “One story struck me,” she says. “A local jail lacked air conditioning in most of the facility, and as temperatures reached 109 degrees inmates were screaming for help.”
Such inhumane conditions horrified Hill. “Who were these inmates?” she wondered. It turned out that the jail in question housed people who could not afford to pay bail for pre-trial release. Worse than enduring the heat, these people typically spent over 200 days behind bars while waiting for trial. “I was shocked that the bail system effectively punished people based on socioeconomic status prior to a verdict of guilt or innocence,” Hill says. “I couldn’t help but think of my Japanese-American grandparents who were incarcerated by the United States during World War II because of their ethnicity. Neither the inmates nor my family were convicted of a crime, yet both lost their freedom.”
Some college students might chalk the situation up to an unfair world or give up on their community. Hill decided to act. She is a member of the Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship, a program that finds innovative young change-makers and gathers them in an environment designed to maximize their talents and advance their commitment to local impact. The program looks for gritty, creative, upstart youth ready to commit to civic transformation. The fellowship, Hill says, “helped me see myself as capable of making change in my community by combating the injustices I saw in the bail system.”
Hill networked with community leaders; conducted research; interviewed everyone she could, from former inmates to corrections officers; and even interned in the St. Louis Corrections Division. The data she collected underpinned a proposal she called risk-free: let inmates go home prior to trial, based on a comprehensive assessment of the risks they pose to the community and the likelihood they will appear for trial. “No longer,” she said, “would low socioeconomic status be the only factor that determined whether an inmate was at home or behind bars before trial.” Soon the proposal won’t just be a theory: Hill’s supervisor in the Corrections Division is working to implement the new model.
Ideas into action: the Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship cultivates local, committed young talent ready to invest in and positively change their communities—not in some distant future but right now. Hill is just one of around 30 youth between the ages of 18 and 22 selected for the fellowship. All fellows come from one of three places: the Mississippi/Arkansas Delta; Newark, New Jersey; or St. Louis, Missouri. Locally based fellowship classes complete one year of personal and leadership development programming designed to accelerate fellows’ understanding of how to make a difference.
Far too often, American communities struggle to keep their brightest and most talented young leaders in town. Some young people lose faith that positive change is possible, others doubt their own potential, still others come to believe that they must leave to find success. This loss of raw talent makes local problems all the more difficult to address. The Aspen Youth Leaders Fellowship asks, What would it look like if we could retain and empower the most talented local youth and help them find opportunities for growth and impact in their own hometowns?
For Mississippi Delta natives Yasmine Malone and Tyler Yarbrough, that looks like comprehensive education opportunities. The pair knew from personal experience how difficult it can be to coordinate the college-prep and careerplanning process. They also knew how lucky they were. “For every story that mirrors our own,” Malone says, “there are dozens more that involve our peers receiving inadequate support to pursue their dreams.” So, as youth fellows and students in the public-policy program at the University of Mississippi, they tackled the problem. “With only 17 percent of the population earning a four-year degree,” Yarbrough says, “going to college is that much harder for kids who reside in the area we call home.”
Malone and Yarbrough wondered why their local schools were consistently underperforming, and explored how they could help bring students, school personnel, and the community together to collaboratively ensure a better future. They designed and implemented weeklong college-readiness workshops to equip students with the skills essential to navigate the college-application and decision-making processes. Students learned to draft meaningful personal statements, showcase their skills on résumés, and engage in effective networking. “At the center of our work is a desire for youth to understand that their narratives have the ability to change the Mississippi/Arkansas Delta,” Malone says. The pair wants to instill Delta youth with the belief that their stories are valuable and that they themselves are problem solvers and change agents. “We want young people to understand their stories and struggles not as limitations but as sources for hope,” Yarbrough says. “The youth of the Mississippi/Arkansas Delta are our community’s, and our country’s, hidden jewels.”
Malone and Yarbrough are the Delta’s not-so-hidden jewels. Whether they are fellows like Hill, who saw an injustice and devoted herself to changing it, or like Malone and Yarbrough, who are determined to increase educational equity—all Aspen Young Leadership fellows are ready to revitalize and shape the future of their regions. “I carry the lessons I learned from the seminars, my cohort, and my community-impact internship with me,” Hill says. “I am tethered to every other person by our shared humanity. I have the power to challenge frameworks and create positive change in my community and the world.”
“By far the greatest contribution we can make to our communities is to incubate and nurture our future leaders,” says Scott Bush, the founder of the Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship, an Institute Henry Crown fellow, and a former managing director at JP Morgan. “We find youth who have already demonstrated raw leadership talent and hone their skills and confidence to transform the world around them.” It’s working.
AYLF is currently made possible through generous contributions from individual donors and foundations including The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Community Foundation of New Jersey, The Oak Foundation, The Pershing Foundation, The Saint Louis Community Foundation, The Maritz Corporation, Edward Jones, and The Walton Family Foundation.