For Young People, Civic Engagement Pays Off

State Representative Andy Vargas stepped up to the podium in the House Chamber and told the standing-room only crowd about how he got his start in policy and government.  When he was just 14, he founded Haverhill Baseball for All, an organization that offered a free baseball league for kids who wanted to play but couldn’t afford the fees. A few years later, he joined Teens Leading the Way, a statewide, youth-led coalition at United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) that helped draft and file legislation establishing a civics education requirement for high school graduation.

And he didn’t stop there. Inspired by a rise in opioid addiction and the low pay of educators in his community, he returned to Haverhill after graduating from Boston University and ran for Haverhill City Council, and was the first elected Latino official in the history of the city.

“To get to the root cause of any issue facing our community, we need to invest in the future electorate,” he said.  He challenged the audience to ask themselves “not what you do want to be, but what do you want to do.”  

His message hit home to those seated in the historic desks in the House of Representatives. But that day, Representative Vargas wasn’t addressing his fellow legislators.  He was speaking to more than 200 high school students from across Massachusetts who were spending the next two days at the State House debating and passing student-drafted legislation as part of the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCA’s Youth and Government program.

That investment in engaging youth in their local governments and communities has a big payoff.  Research shows that when young people are involved in civic engagement– activities like voting, volunteering and community organizing– they have better educational outcomes, higher incomes, and better mental health.  And in a state like Massachusetts where politics is a full-blown sport, there are a number of strong programs where youth are getting involved and helping to shape their communities, and their future.

Positive Change, Personal Growth

The Center for Teen Empowerment employs youth to work year-round as community organizers in Somerville, Dorchester and Roxbury. Working with their peers, they identify pressing issues in their community that affect youth, such as community violence, racism, substance abuse, gentrification or educational equity, and organize ways to engage the community at large to address them.  

The organization also works with the City of Somerville to bring youth leadership into City departments, such as Teen Empowerment Library Leaders, who help plan youth events at the library; Mental Wellness Ambassadors, who work with the Health Department to de-stigmatize mental wellness among youth and help teach peers coping skills; and Youth Police Walking Dialogues, in which youth and police walk through each neighborhood of Somerville together and interview residents about health and public safety topics.

“We have had several instances when youth’s ideas or feedback helped to change policies or procedures,” said Stephanie Berkowitz, Director of External Relations at The Center for Teen Empowerment. “These examples include everything from changes in school rules to helping convince lawmakers to raise the age for juvenile record expungement.”

For more than 45 years, Boston Asian YES has worked to inspire Asian youth to realize and actualize their greatest potential. YES believes that young people, when empowered with knowledge, skills and opportunities, can become leaders and affect positive change in their community.

“We create an environment where all youth, regardless of skill or ability, feel valued and respected,” said Armanda Trinh Britton, who is a Youth Counselor at Boston Asian YES. “We involve the youth in all aspects of programming; from design to implementation and evaluation, we design programs that are relevant, interesting and fun. We set high expectations and empower them with knowledge, skills, opportunities and support they need to be agents of change.”

Britton notes that while Boston Asian YES youth have received awards, been covered in the news articles, and congratulated by political and community leaders, their main measure of success is when young people are committed to the program and show personal growth.

“We want to see that young people have greater-self awareness, know their strengths and have increased understanding and empathy for others.  We want to see that they can work cooperatively with youths from different backgrounds and abilities and are able to form and maintain relationships with team members as well as other members of our community. We want to see that they are able to make good choices and decisions for themselves, manage their time and resources, and set achievable goals. These skills are transferable and will stay with them long after the program has ended.”

Among the youth participating in Teen Empowerment, 100% say they gained skills such as public speaking, group facilitation, writing, event planning and  communication, and 98% thought the skills they gained prepared them for the future. In addition, 94% report increased leadership skills and more self-respect, and 91% feel they have made a positive contribution to their community.  

“Society must look at youth as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem if they want to solve pressing issues that involve youth,” says Berkowitz.  “Young people benefit because the policies and procedures of community institutions and organizations and government entities are more responsive to their needs.The communities (and everyone in them) benefit from youth involvement because they end up with better outcomes, such as increased safety and less violence and crime, or more student-centered education.”

“Engaging youths in community improvement projects gives them the opportunity to learn not only about the issues affecting their community but also about community organizing and our political systems,” adds Britton. Whether it’s working to raise awareness on the issues of underage drinking, misuse of prescription drugs, or advocating for smoke-free homes, the youth are able to see that they do have the power to affect change and make a difference in their community.”

Youth Venture Helps Youth Lead

Recently recognized by both Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the Boston City Council, a team of young people from the Jackson Mann Community Center in Allston are working to improve their community while honing their business skills.  The team is one of eleven United Way Youth Venture teams who are working to develop, launch, manage and sustain community-benefiting projects across the Boston. They created a business called “Boston Body Butter,” a line of skin care products named after different neighborhoods in Boston.

United Way’s Youth Venture is a social entrepreneurship program that empowers young people to envision, create, and see the impact of their own youth-led business ventures. Youth Venture empowers young people and encourages them to see that everyone can be a social entrepreneur, and provides them with ongoing training, mentoring and financial support to actualize their ideas.

This year’s teams are working on social ventures to help introduce healthy hygiene at an early age to children, offer cooking and baking classes with a focus on environmentally friendly practices, market a teen fashion jewelry line to benefit disadvantaged youth, and design and sell t-shirts that benefit local families struggling with cancer.

More than 1,000 young people have participated in United Way’s Youth Venture program since it began.  “Through its curriculum, Youth Venture teaches youth social-emotional skills, the competencies needed to excel in the 21st century workplace, and empowers them to develop the project management, leadership, and financial literacy skills needed to be successful in college and career,” says Sam Zito, Director of Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.

“This is an incredible partnership that is truly helping Boston’s young people develop and build a business from the bottom to the top,” says Will Morales, Commissioner of Boston Centers for Youth and Families.