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Reimagining the Power of Young People

By Katrina Mitchell on February 6, 2015

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed… It means facing a system that does not lend its self to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. ~ Ella Baker, 1969

Ella Baker was not only an educator; she also became one of the nation’s greatest activists during the Civil Rights Movement. She understood that the system that made it almost impossible for Black Americans to thrive economically needed to be radically changed, and young people had the power to create that change. At AFF, our focus is all about equipping youth and their communities with the tools to create that long lasting change she speaks of.

We know from the data that the number of youth impacted by disruptive systems like foster care and criminal justice is astounding and the challenges that they will likely face are immense as they transition out of these systems. The odds are stacked against them and the policies and practices that would create the conditions for them to be successful are fragmented and often times very detrimental to their social, emotional and physical well-being. Black and Hispanic children and youth continue to be overrepresented in these systems and even though both systems are meant to be temporary – they tend to create long-term outcomes that negatively impact the ability of these young people to be productive in our workforce and economy.

We know that poverty is a key contributing factor and Baker knew how inextricably linked poverty was to the advancement of Black Americans during the 1960’s. Today, we have seen how poverty has plagued the overwhelming number of children who end up in “the system.” Civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry offers a plausible explanation: “What happens is you have kids who grow up in an environment which is not nurturing because the resources aren’t there…When you add that to the neighborhoods they live in and the schools they go to starting from kindergarten, it’s an environment in which there is poverty and there are drugs.”

Because poverty is a complex problem, finding a solution is equally complex. Berry makes the case that change should start in the school building. She believes that many of our schools are failing its most vulnerable students by pushing them out and not offering alternatives to reengagement. I contend that as well intentioned grant makers, service providers, nonprofit professionals and community leaders we also have failed our young people by not providing safety nets and alternatives that can support them in being successful in school, work and life.

Children do not grow up in programs and services, they are nurtured in communities by caring adults and coordinated systems. Children and youth thrive when they are viewed as assets to be developed rather than problems to be solved. Communities thrive when young people are given real opportunities to share power with adults and community leaders to make decisions that would benefit the community. While poverty is an underlying factor and one that we all need to wrestle with, we also have forgotten to nurture and support young people caught in these twisted systems so that they can be architects of change and leaders of a new social movement. We have to open the door for a new generation of leaders to reimagine a different future. As leaders, we have to be comfortable with allowing young people to voice their ideas and equip them with the knowledge to work alongside us in working toward a greater society that cares for its children and is committed to unlocking the potential within.

While changes to public policy can shift the course for many vulnerable youth, there is no replacement for community engagement. I think this powerful statement by a currently incarcerated blogger sums it up, “Love and affection provide children with something no government initiative or school program can – self-esteem.” Now that we understand the work that needs to be done, each of us has the responsibility to take action. AFF is taking its action supporting organizations which are committed to removing barriers and creating conditions in where our most vulnerable youth can thrive; this not only impacts their lives but also our country’s economic prosperity.


Katrina is an experienced and respected leader with more than 15 years of experience working on a national and regional level. She has worked in the non-profit and philanthropic sector, including serving as AFF’s Program Officer. Currently, Katrina is testing how partnerships between philanthropy and government can work on behalf of our most vulnerable youth and their families as the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. Connect with Katrina on Linkedin.