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Youth Voice

YOUTH VOICE, a project of the Harriet Tubman Center, is a network for young people to make community change. The current YOUTH VOICE statewide campaign is to reduce out-of-school suspensions by advocating for the zero tolerance policy to be modified and for more school resources so students have additional support as an alternative to suspensions. It’s all about youth creating change, so the 16-year old president of YOUTH VOICE has joined our dialogue. 
Michigan Nightlight: What really differentiates this program?
YOUTH VOICE President Trevon Stapleton (age 16):
What differentiates YOUTH VOICE is we are a youth-driven organization and organize around issues that affect us in our schools and community. We meet with city and state officials to tell them some of the problems that youth are facing, and how they can help solve the problem or come up with some possible solutions. Most organizations speak for youth, but in YOUTH VOICE we speak for ourselves.
What are the keys to success for your program?
YOUTH VOICE President Trevon Stapleton:
The keys to success for YOUTH VOICE are youth gaining self and collective power to organize around issues that affect them and to let people know that the youth perspective is a crucial part of the conversation. Youth are developing as strong leaders in their schools, neighborhoods, and communities because of their involvement with YOUTH VOICE. We are not just
Most organizations speak for youth, but in YOUTH VOICE we speak for ourselves.
the leaders of tomorrow, we are the leaders of today.
YOUTH VOICE Director Kayla Mason:
I believe one key to success for our program is we offer support beyond youth organizing. Our students participate in community service projects, receive college preparation, and attend professional development trainings and social field trips. YV members also develop fundamental leadership skills that include conducting research, building relationships with elected officials, and enhancing their communication skills with presentations at universities, conferences, and community events. Other proficiencies they gain are goal setting, conflict resolution, negotiating, computer skills, critical thinking, team building, and overall self-confidence in the ability to address youth concerns. There is a connection between political activism and psychological wellness that refers to a sense of hope, empowerment, and purpose in life. We believe when young people are empowered to act and are given the space to be leaders, incredible change is possible in their lives and in their communities.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
YOUTH VOICE President Trevon Stapleton:
We currently face problems with transportation for youth, recruitment, and resources for individual YOUTH VOICE members. Sometimes my peers want to come, but can't afford to catch the bus downtown every week. We plan to overcome these challenges by continuing to develop chapters in schools where we can have students going to their own schools for meetings. When we have these growing chapters in schools, engaging our peers will be that much easier. As we develop partnerships across the region and state, we’re hoping that we can also connect YOUTH VOICE to partner with foundations and organizations that will help fund a better method of transporting students, like buying a van.
YOUTH VOICE Director Kayla Mason:
My challenge and goal in YOUTH VOICE is to fundraise enough money so that students can be employed as YOUTH VOICE staff or receive a stipend. I believe it is important with the amount of time and commitment they put into their organization and
Many of our ideas have come from student experiences: expulsions, assaults, encounters with homeless teens...
with all of the economic barriers in their lives, they should be provided a monetary reward of appreciation. For example, sometimes it is hard to reach our students because their phone was turned off or they have to skip a meeting because they don't have money to get to a meeting. I would love if we got a sponsorship to have a stipend program year round to decrease the amount of barriers in youth lives so that they can continue improving their community.
How do race or diversity affect the work of your program?
YOUTH VOICE Director Kayla Mason:
We realized that race and diversity is an ongoing obstacle for the work we do, but we use our program as a space to have open discussions about it. For example, we find time in our agendas to have a “Lets Talk” session where we discuss issues, frustrations, or positive things going on in their lives. Often times, it is an issue related to race or their family’s socio economic status, but we create a safe space for them to feel comfortable talking to staff and peers about it. I think it is also important to mention that we have been intentional about exposing our students to other youth involved in social justice work, which is why we are growing into a statewide network that will have chapters in more counties in Michigan.
How do you innovate programming? Where do the ideas come from? How do you know if they are going to work?
YOUTH VOICE President Trevon Stapleton:
YOUTH VOICE is always innovating, since we are at the front of everything. Our executive board is constantly researching new issues to get involved around. Many of our ideas have come from student experiences: expulsions, assaults, encounters with homeless teens, etc. Overall, we put a lot of thought into how winnable an issue is when we start working on it, since a lot of what we do is chipping away at systemic problems. Modifying zero tolerance is a huge deal for students in Michigan, and it is something that can and will be accomplished. We need to be smart about how we pick our battles. We can’t win this fight overnight.
YOUTH VOICE Director Kayla Mason:
We are innovative in the way we address adultism, a discriminatory practice that limits youth opportunities to feel empowered because they are not adults.  For example, if a staff is struggling on how to establish boundaries in the organization, unsure about how to lead a training topic, or even questioning the outcomes for a grant, these are all challenges I have asked youth leaders for their advice on. It was transformative to learn that sometimes, youth solutions were far greater than my ideas and I learned that was okay. Sometimes it is things you don’t think about like a door that says “No Students Allowed.” Labeling it “Directors Lounge” or “Staff Training Room” gives the same implication without showing an inequality. With the success we’ve had recently, I believe our work is heading in the right direction. 
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