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Learning to Be Good Leaders

By Nathalie Moberg and Corryne Deliberto
February 2010

Children and youth are among a community’s most valuable assets – as they thrive, so do we. As they struggle, so do our communities. In urban and rural settings across the United States, marginalized youth need clear opportunities to change the places they call home.

Farmer Nelly Damaris Chepkoskei
Members of the Seattle delegation meet with Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA). Photo credit: World Vision

Luisa Ashenfelter is a 17-year-old growing up in one of Seattle’s hardscrabble neighborhoods – a community where nine people, four of them juveniles, were gunned down by gang members in 2008. The threat of violence is a constant companion, but Ashenfelter refuses to succumb to fear. “The change starts within yourself,” the diminutive high-schooler says with conviction. “You’ve got to want something better.”

Ashenfelter’s passion echoes that of other young people who want to transform their neighborhoods so that gang violence, drugs, and social injustices no longer have a stranglehold on their lives. The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), run by Christian humanitarian organization World Vision – a Bread for the World partner – brings together young people who live in the country’s most vulnerable communities and equips them with skills they need to do just that.

Young people have a compelling message and role to play in the process of community transformation, and the YEP provides them with the opportunity to reflect on their community experience, refine their advocacy voice, and promote positive change in their neighborhoods.

Many of the participating teenagers have stood at the gravesides of friends and loved ones who died too young from violence. Some have been homeless or had parents in prison. Some have been in gangs, and others grew up in abusive homes.

But they’re not ready to give up or give in. The YEP equips them with training, support, experiences, and resources that develop their leadership and advocacy potential so that they can become active citizens who speak out and influence change in their communities.

Each year, participants spend 20 weeks in intensive training, identifying and studying their community’s urgent needs and then developing policy proposals to address them. When training is completed, they gather in Washington, DC, each summer to present the proposals to their respective members of Congress. In July 2009, youth delegates visited the offices of 38 members of Congress from 10 states, along with two members of the District of Columbia City Council. Half of the meetings were attended by members of Congress themselves. The students presented their recommendations and engaged their representatives in thoughtful discussion -- some even persuaded Congress members to support legislation on the prevention of youth violence.

When the delegates return home, they continue advocating for change in their communities and teach others to join them in transforming their neighborhoods. In 2008, participants from Seattle established a local advocacy campaign called “Who’s Next?” -- a youth-led effort that promotes nonviolence at citywide rallies and in local schools.

The YEP works to build confident young leaders who are using their talents and vision to shape bright futures for themselves and the country. Shawn Dunbar, a delegate from Albany, GA, says, “I saw Youth Empowerment Project as something positive I could give back to my community and peers. Also, I wanted to learn to be a good leader -- to be the person that stands out and does the right thing.”

Developing young leaders is an integral part of building strong neighborhoods and cities. For more examples of community development at work, see Bread for the World Institute’s Hunger 2010: A Just and Sustainable Recovery.

Nathalie Moberg is a senior writer and Corryne Deliberto is a domestic policy advisor with World Vision.

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