Beyond Self

Just Say YES!

College and high school students empowered by youth advocacy and service-learning

by Robin L. Flanigan

The group stands in a long oval, tossing around a purple beach ball loaded with questions written in black marker. What do you want to be when you grow up? What is your favorite book? Sneakers or flip-flops?

Made up mostly of students from Nazareth College and area high schools, the group — known as YES, an acronym for Youth Empowered by Service — is in the middle of an ice-breaker game before getting to work on its latest collaborative project. YES co-hosted Global Youth Service Day in late April, a resource fair that addressed transitions in education. This most recent initiative builds on a number of advocacy efforts — youth leadership conferences, public workshops, service-learning projects — that teach the importance of combining classroom theory with meaningful practice in the community.

Everyone in the ice-breaker game gets one turn, a subtle nod to the equal footing these group members, despite their variety of ages, backgrounds, and experiences, share as fellow community activists. All passionate leaders, they advocate for what they believe in, are sensitive to each other’s opinions during planning meetings, and respectfully provide each other honest feedback as they work through logistical issues and offer alternative ideas.

Above all, there is a reciprocity that speaks volumes to what can be accomplished when different age groups listen to one another.

“The youth feel they have a right to be here and a space to be here, and our students take a look deep inside and realize that just because they think they have more experience, that doesn’t mean they have all the answers,” says Marie Watkins ’73, Ph.D., professor of social work, director of the Community Youth Development (CYD) program, and past director of the Center for Service Learning in Nazareth's Center for Civic Engagement.

When sociology major and CYD minor Devin Kelly ’13 became involved in fall 2011, she figured she was going to learn how to help develop the lives of young people.

“Now, looking back, it is incredible how much I have learned by listening to the youth,” she says. “Although I couldn’t have anticipated it, joining CYD has brought me on a journey that has both transformed my future path and allowed me to discover who I am. The experience has broken a certain bubble that I was living in, where now I challenge myself daily to be consistent in the theories I have learned and in my daily actions.”

As a result, Kelly, adding that working with youth has become “my calling,” plans to attend graduate school in England to earn a master’s degree in youth and community work.

The YES program pairs students in Community Youth Development classes and in a first-year seminar containing a strong service-learning component with teens from Youth Voice One Vision, sponsored by the City of Rochester Department of Recreation and Youth Services, and Youth as Resources, funded jointly by the Rochester Area Community Foundation and the Rochester-Monroe County Youth Bureau. The group is led by the youth, supported by agency representatives, and committed to offering solutions to community concerns. Its own existence is one such solution, given the recent history of decreased funding for after-school programs.

To that end, wanting to develop a fun and effective way to teach the community about advocacy, some group members are producing a tool kit that would help people learn about and help promote the importance of after-school programs — and resonate with community organizations more than a PowerPoint presentation ever could. The tool kit — which contains potential presentations, role-playing activities, and a game — hopes to add a creative, interactive element to the community workshops the students facilitate (community partners include City of Rochester Recreation Centers, the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester, Charles Settlement House, and the Community Place of Greater Rochester) and give them informative materials to leave behind so that their message can continue to be spread.

YES has a history of successful collaborations. Building on the College’s annual event to raise awareness about homelessness, YES sponsors a countywide Cardboard City each summer to increase awareness about homeless youth. And every November, it helps host Steppin’ Up to Solutions, a yearly conference that walks students through the planning process to develop real and practical solutions to community concerns. Last fall, the conference included CYD-led workshops on subjects such as bullying and time management, and one brainstorming session that prompted a local community center to devise methods for recruiting and retaining more girls.

Outside the group’s scheduled meetings and events, YES has yielded unexpected benefits for some. Brittany Wienke ’13, who’s majoring in inclusive elementary education with English and minoring in CYD, has found herself bringing many of the program’s practices into her classroom work as a pre-service teacher.

“As a future educator, being a part of this program has given me an immense amount of insight when it comes to working with young people of all ages,” she says. “Collaboration is the key to success when doing anything with youth, and I think that many educators have forgotten this basic idea.”

Meanwhile, Nazareth is giving high-schoolers exposure to its campus and rare opportunities to engage their peers. “This often means a lot of meeting new people, traveling to new locations, and being able to be outgoing and focused in their outreach,” says Nick Ponterio, coordinator for Youth as Resources. “So it avoids the ‘ivory tower’ stigma associated with college experiences, and instead emphasizes social responsibilities and civic engagement.”

Ponterio adds that it’s rewarding to watch the program’s non- traditional and empowering role in the lives of the region’s young people.

“The key to YES is that it is in real time and always unfolding,” he says.

“Everything is like a seed,” Watkins concludes. “We don’t stop and start new ideas. We continuously build on what we’ve been doing.”

Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.

Marie Watkins's YES class

Dr. Marie Watkins, director of the Community Youth Development (CYD) program, introduces herself to YES members and CYD students at a recent youth service planning meeting.