Want to Know the Future of Afterschool? Ask a Young Person.
By Every Hour Counts
“Tired. Stressed. Overwhelmed. Anxious.”
These were among the first words heard by attendees of the 2021 Every Hour Counts National Conference. Some of the words that came next were, “Excited and happy. Curious where this will go. Determined.”
The voices speaking these words came from young people in cities across the country who’d been asked, “How are you feeling right now?”
Between a global pandemic that has kept them stuck at home, economic insecurity, the looming threat of climate change, and the murder and persecution of people who look just like them, these are hard times to be a young person. And yet young people remain excited, curious, and determined not just to face the future but to lead the way for the rest of us. They have been at the forefront of the movements for racial, economic, and environmental justice, all while attending Zoom classes, taking care of siblings and neighbors, and earning money to support themselves and their families.
Those of us who work in the youth development field have long understood the importance of listening to what young people have to tell us, making space for “voice and choice” in the afterschool and summer programs that serve them. But with conditions in our society forcing us to rethink what we do and how we do it, and a new administration in Washington, D.C. pledging billions to rebuild communities, the time has come for the next step — to let young people themselves take the lead in shaping a new vision for afterschool.
So, when Every Hour Counts decided that the theme of this year’s conference would be Reimagining the Future of Afterschool, we knew we needed young people — their voices, their insights, their priorities — to be front and center. To do that, we started a week before the conference with a youth summit. Every Hour Counts and Youthprise, an equity-focused intermediary organization in Minnesota, invited 30 young people from across the country to share their ideas for building better afterschool programs and investing in their communities. They took as their jumping-off point a set of nine recommendations that came out of an earlier youth focus group facilitated by the Brooklyn Bridge Alliance for Youth, another Minnesota intermediary.
Recommendations Powered by Youth
The participants in that focus group recommended that adults who work with young people:
- Selflessly encourage and facilitate
- Believe in the relationship [between youth and adults]
- Recruit youth and acknowledge their labor with compensation
- Trust youth to dominate decision making
- Make time and space (physical and emotional) available
- Recognize individuality
- Communicate with and support families with resources
- Remove stigma around age
- Give youth control to create accessible programs
At a plenary held on the second day of the conference, leaders of grassroots youth organizations discussed their participation in the summit and the projects they would like to see come out of it. Walter Cortina, founding director of Bridgemakers in Minnesota, spoke of the importance of creating opportunities for young people to express themselves through music and art. “I have to be honest, speeches and documentaries don’t really hit the nail for us,” he said.
Bryan Jandres of Seeds of Peace in Washington emphasized the importance of providing safe spaces that allow young people to learn about the issues that affect their lives while also attending to their social and emotional needs. He noted that Seeds of Peace is already working with the Boys & Girls Club and other youth-serving organizations in Tacoma to host book and discussion groups for young people interested in engaging in social justice activism.
(Youthprise and Every Hour Counts committed $4,000 in seed money to the ideas that came out of the youth summit and called on other organizations to follow suit.)
Throughout the conference, youth speakers helped their adult counterparts understand that their role is not so much to supervise as to support and advise — because young people are already doing incredible things, as they demonstrated in workshop after workshop.
Center Youth in Policy Reform
Walter Cortina and his colleague Cole Stevens described how Bridgemakers teamed up with Youthprise, along with the help of a coalition of adult allies and grants from Youthprise and the former Woodrow Wilson Foundation, to successfully sue the state of Minnesota for more than $30 million in unemployment benefits to high school students who’d been laid off during the pandemic. (The benefits had been withheld under a law first passed in 1939 that Bridgemakers and Youthprise subsequently got repealed.) Bridgemakers now employs eight young people itself and is working with Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature to repeal the law once and for all. ““There’s this notion that young people just make a little bit of money to buy some shoes during high school,” Stevens said, “but the realities of this economy are very different. Young people have bills to pay, siblings to feed, things to do.”
Kai-Lin Kwek-Rupp, Kelly Ankoue, and Cheyanne Deopersaud of New York City’s Teens Take Charge shared the story of how they fought back when, in the midst of the pandemic last year, the mayor eliminated the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). The largest program of its kind in the country, SYEP had provided 75,000 paid summer jobs to young people. Using a simple online form, Teens Take Charge gathered 269 responses from their peers and delivered them by hand to the City Council. “All of a sudden, SYEP went from being a little line in the budget to a huge issue and a stand-in for conversations about equity,” Kwek-Rupp said. “That shows how important youth voice is and how important individual stories are.” The Council restored about 35,000 jobs to the budget, and the number is back up to 70,000 this year.
But Teens Take Charge isn’t content to go back to the way things were before. They see an opportunity to, in President Biden’s words, “build back better.” They’re working with adult partners to advocate for an improved, universal SYEP that offers jobs to all of New York City’s young people, regardless of documentation status, year-round. And not just any jobs but employment opportunities that feature social emotional supports and regular communication with adult mentors. In March, they hosted a digital forum for candidates in the upcoming mayoral race, all of whom pledged to make universal SYEP a reality in their first year in office. Teens Take Charge also got all the candidates to dance onscreen.
Akhila Mullapudi, a high school student from Southeast Michigan, talked about her role in Generator Z, an initiative of the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation. Mullapudi was one of a thousand youth “generators” who, over the course of a year, shared videos, images, and stories shedding light on what they want the future of afterschool to look like. The generators were paid $1,000 each for their work on the project.
Mullapudi also reviewed grant proposals from community organizations interested in trying out new ideas inspired by the generators’ contributions. She explained what she was looking for in the applications: “Teens are your most important audience. We wanted proposals that were exciting, that held promise for the future. We didn’t want jargon. We didn’t want any of that fancy nonprofit proposal kind of stuff. We wanted relevant information that…doesn’t tokenize us as young people but speaks to us as people.”
Over the course of three days, young people gave the adults attending the conference inspiration, food for thought — and homework. We have a lot to do to live up to their example and a lot to figure out: how to include them in our decision-making bodies, how to fairly compensate them for what they bring to the table, how to stand beside them and not stand in their way.
Nathan Beck, Madison Out of School Time Coordinator for the City of Madison, Wisconsin and the Madison Metropolitan School District, put it this way: “Somebody has to give up power… In the urgency of all our work, youth voice is so easy to cut because we have a meeting at 10:00 AM, and that’s where we need to make a decision, and our structure doesn’t allow young people to be involved at 10:00 AM.”
But it wouldn’t be right to give an adult the last word here, so let’s turn the mic back over to Walter Cortina and Cole Stevens of Bridgemakers for some parting words of wisdom.