Youth Leadership Programs: Why Do They Matter?

  Pexel stock photo

Pexel stock photo

“Who do you think of when you talk about leadership?” Whenever I was asked this between the ages of 6-17, I typically sat quietly as others shared their thoughts:

“The President!”

“Jesus!”

“My Dad!”

“MLK!”

It always felt like one of those questions adults asked knowing that we probably did not have the answer they were looking for. I was usually right because, shortly after the shouting stopped and hands dropped to their sides, the individuals teaching the course would follow up with something along the lines of, “Those are great examples and you are not wrong but…” only to start talking about different types of leaders, qualities, and other things we daily don’t think or talk about.

These qualities often include: integrity, honesty, humility, great moral values, accountability, and the belief that good leaders have just as much ability to follow when necessary as they do to lead. No individual is perfect not even the best of leaders, being able to admit this and hand the reins over, good leaders are not “fearless”, they just can be honest about their strengths and ask for help in other aspects. There is the misconception that “leaders are born, not made.” However, Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) has put it in a way that I admire:

“Everyone has the potential to be a leader. Leadership can be learned..."

I know that I would probably not be where I am, had I not gone through training after training, had I not met the mentors in my life that encouraged me to take positions I would have never sought after. Someone saw the potential in me and my desire to grow it, now I work to foster the others so that they two can benefit from their own abilities.

In my experience, the younger individuals are given the opportunity to partake in leadership development programs, the more practiced their abilities are and the more embedded in daily actions being a leader or simply taking on leader like traits becomes. Programs like Youth of the Year (YOY), are the epitome of channeling teen energy and resources into a positive experience. Youth of the Year is a 70+ year program that meant to develop 14-18 year olds leadership abilities. However, BGCA does not expect YOY to stand alone. There are leadership opportunities for even the youngest of members with YOY serving as the capstone experience.  While only one youth in the Portland area will end up with the title of being Youth of the Year, it is an extensive program that benefits high schoolers - especially Juniors and Seniors that have an interest in college, entering the workforce or simply developing their abilities.

I specifically want to broaden the scope of the program and not only help them prepare for college but post-high school life in general, and explore what it means to be seventeen or eighteen years old in our current political, economic and social world. In the Portland area, teens from underrepresented communities are getting their first or second job by age sixteen or seventeen and missing out on career advancing opportunities through school. However the YOY program has the opportunity and reach to work with teens, to support them and guide them. I want to give the teens the opportunity to shape the space, the time and the curriculum for what they most need. I want their questions to be answered not to give them information that was helpful five year ago. If we simply rolled out a program, handed teens worksheets and gave the most basic of efforts, they would learn something, but it is the experiences, the life lessons and the mentoring from programs like YOY that shape leaders.

The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow, so we must build relevant programming for and with them.