“A shift in the narrative. For people in the community to see the power that they have. That the community, especially young people, realize that they have a voice and that they can use it.”
These are just a few of the goals that Central High School senior Amaiyah Parker hopes to accomplish through her advocacy work with Philly BOLT, a nonprofit that empowers grassroots organizers. On Saturday, April 15, from 12:30 to 5pm, Parker and a group of her fellow Philly students, with support from Philly BOLT and other organizations, will meet with elected leaders and candidates for office — and come one step closer to those goals. Their Youth Voices Forum takes place at the School District of Philadelphia headquarters, 440 N. Broad Street.
What makes Youth Voices Forum different from the endless stream of pre-primary forums taking place in Philly? Although current and aspiring city leaders are invited, they will not be the central focus. Instead, Parker and her peers will flip the dynamic of a traditional public forum — to center young voices, their voices — and the things they care about.
Making it happen
Parker began her activism at a young age. As an eighth grader at Mastery Charter, she got involved with We.Reign, a Philly-based organization that tackles issues impacting Black girls. Parker has since done work around police brutality and gender-based violence. The subsequent death of a friend prompted her to shift her attention to the fight against gun violence in Philly, which is now the focus of her advocacy.
She and more than 75 other Philly high school students, under the guidance of PhillyBOLT and more than 10 partner organizations, have been working for weeks on the event. These youth are leading the event, and want to make sure their concerns and perspectives are heard — not just tokenized — by those with political power in the city.
“Youth are really demonstrating that they are able to hone in on a productive solution driven conversation, that they have what it takes,” says Jude Husein.
Each youth facilitator has been working to create their own Theory of Change, which includes identifying the issue they hope to see addressed, assessing the resources currently available to them that would help implement their vision, mapping out the stakeholders involved, and creating a roadmap for what can be done in order to incite the desirable changes. Facilitators have conducted extensive research to build out their Theories of Change and pinpoint specific policy suggestions in order to have robust conversations with their peers and those in office at the forum.
Youth facilitators had to work together, too. The facilitators conducted research and attended sessions on active listening and empathy, gaining all the tools needed in order to have productive conversations about often difficult, nuanced issues. Hillary Do, founder of PhillyBOLT, and Jude Husein, PhillyBOLT’s chief of staff, provided support to the organizers throughout the process. Students also met with DA Larry Krasner and Councilperson-at-Large Kendra Brooks in preparation for the event.
On top of all this, several grassroots organizations came together to help coordinate the event: UrbnSEEK, A Home from Shana Foundation, Hunting Park Green, and Youth Creating New Beginnings. The sponsors are Every Voice Every Vote (the collaborative 2023 election initiative of which The Citizen is also a part), and the School District of Philadelphia.
A different kind of conversation
In a typical forum, attendees listen to candidates and elected officials express their opinions and policy agendas. Philly BOLT’s event flips the script by putting public high school students at the forefront as speakers, assuming the role typically occupied by those in or running for office. By swapping the roles of a traditional forum, political figures must truly show up for Philly youth. Candidates so commonly campaign about young people, claiming that their voices ought to be at the forefront and that youth engagement is key for the city’s success — yet they fail to genuinely take into account the demands that young people present.
This time around, candidates and elected officials will not be allowed to speak while they listen to what students think should happen in Philly. Cherelle Parker, David Oh, Rue Landau, and Jamie Gauthier, among dozens of other figures in Philly, will be remaining silent as students present the research they have put together on issues including affordable housing, public education, public safety and gun violence, youth employment, and climate and sustainability.
Husein believes that “the reason why this format is really unique is because youth are really demonstrating that they are able to hone in on a productive, solution-driven conversation, that they have what it takes.”
The event will begin with light refreshments, then transition into two sessions of breakout rooms, where politicians and facilitators will split into randomly assigned groups to delve into the individual topics. Then, there will be a break, followed by two more sessions of breakout rooms. Within the breakout rooms, a panel of students will do most of the talking, leaving time for adults to ask the students questions at the end. Once all four sessions are complete, there will be a wrap-up and a call to action, and student organizers will present their concluding remarks.
The organizers of the forum hope that this is just the beginning of a larger movement to engage youth voices in the civic engagement process and bridge the gap between elected officials and their constituents — regardless of their age.
Lead support for Every Voice, Every Vote is provided by the William Penn Foundation, with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others.
MORE ON YOUTH ACTIVISM FROM THE CITIZENPhoto courtesy of Philly BOLT.