“There’s a common misconception that youth empowerment is a program that has a start and an end,” said PreventObesity.net Leader Katie Spears, Team Lead for Real Food Active Living at Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!). “In reality, it’s a theory and a practice.”
YES! is a nonprofit organization working toward social change through policy advocacy, but with one major difference from many other similar organizations—they are driven by youth. Along the path to social change, the team is helping others understand the power of engaging youth in creating lasting change.
In the group’s local offices across North Carolina, they hire high school students to work a few days a week after school. These students truly lead the organization’s advocacy and policy work in their schools and communities—contributing to everything from research to community outreach.
“They really gain the skills, critical awareness and knowledge to advocate for change in their communities, and then train other young people across the country,” said Katie. “They become authentic spokespeople for the work and for the movement, and train their peers on how to be advocates in their own schools and communities working toward social and community change.”
What began as an effort to promote teen tobacco prevention in North Carolina in the late 1990s has now become a major voice in the state’s adolescent health policy initiatives - tackling issues ranging from access to healthy food and underage drinking to physical and oral health care access, among other issues. Of note, the organization played a major role in the fact that 100 percent of schools in North Carolina are tobacco free—and in Georgia, they are working toward the same goal.
“From our work in the tobacco prevention movement, we knew we had a model that was working, andwe knew that we wanted to start applying this model to other adolescent health areas,” Katie said. “In talking to our youth staff, childhood obesity is an issue that bubbled up for them—they had struggles with school lunch options, lack of opportunities for physical activity and issues in their communities that made it unsafe for them to play and exercise outdoors.”
The group’s work toward childhood obesity prevention has evolved over time. In the beginning, the group focused on environmental changes such as community gardens and safe places to walk and bike. Then, staff devoted time to school-based changes such as redesigning lunchroom layouts to support healthy school food sales, working on intentional product placement and encouraging schools to offer second chance breakfasts to increase access for students.
In partnership with other state-based organizations, the group is working to promote and implement a position statement around the standards of foods that should be served at games, making sure sporting events such as recreation league games are healthy. (For more information on this work, follow @Eat2WinNC on Twitter.)
Most recently, YES! has worked to provided mini-grants to youth-adult teams across North Carolina to support the Healthy Corner Store initiative. This work has allowed young people to assess their communities, meet with corner store owners and customers, identify opportunities for changes in small retail outlets, host legislative events and attend state level advocacy days, where they met with their elected officials. All of this work is in support of active legislation in the state that would commit a $1 million appropriation to the Healthy Corner Store initiative.
YES! student staff do many of the things that adult staff would normally do in an organization. Working a few days a week after school, the students do everything from surveys and data collection to developing action plans, writing letters to the editor, visiting legislators to talk about policy solutions, and designing training content to bring their work to scale nationally.
“Every young person’s experience is different here, because we focus on what they enjoy and do well,” said Katie.
In addition to policy and social change, YES! also focuses on consulting with other organizations – from state departments of transportation to foundations to local health departments – to help them understand how they can create spaces that are supportive of youth empowerment.
“There is a common archetype of the ‘student as a future leader,’ but at YES! we know that these students are fully competent individuals at this age, and can do all the things adults can do—we just have to give them the opportunity,” explained Katie. “It’s up to the adults to foster that environment so that they grow up in those spaces and aren’t playing catch-up later.”
There are challenges to incorporating youth into a traditional adult-run organization. For example, 10:00 a.m. meetings have to be moved to after-school hours to accommodate students, and staff capacity must increase to support and partner with youth leaders. The training that YES! provides to these organizations helps to identify these challenges and create solutions.
Currently, YES! is doing youth empowerment trainings in 16 states, but they hope to expand this program in the future.
“Our biggest success really has been getting adult leadership and organizations to buy in to youth empowerment,” Katie said. “Especially in the work we do around childhood obesity, young people are the intended audience. If we continue to leave them out of the conversation, we are not creating equitable solutions that they will buy into, and we will not accomplish our mission and goals.