The Youth ERA Has Arrived, and Advocacy Will Never Be the Same

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Have you heard? Have you seen the video? Do you feel the foundation of understanding about what defines youth advocacy shaking under your feet? Youth MOVE Oregon, a perennial leader in defining youth advocacy, is once again transforming right before our very eyes, as they emerge into something new - Youth ERA. The transformation underway will grab you, lift you, inspire you and leave you shaking with emotion and revelation about what has been missing in youth advocacy, what is needed, and how this dynamic organization is creating a new understanding of what youth advocacy looks like, feels like, and is.

All good things come to an end. But the best never die, they just transform. From a movement to an era, an organization dedicated to ushering a new generation of youth empowerment. We are the Youth ERA. (Youth ERA video)

What is it about this dynamic organization that has caused it to develop from an idea to a project to a fully-fledged organization that has impacted the lives of over 875,000 youth and helped other youth organizations in 39 states (and counting) develop a better understanding of what youth-driven mental health services programming looks like?

Over the past 35 years, I have interviewed countless numbers of family and youth advocates from across the United States who have been involved in efforts to develop sustainable family advocacy organizations, and increasingly in the past ten years, youth advocacy organizations focused on meeting the mental health needs of children, youth, and their families.

The significance of including the voices of youth transitioning to adulthood in designing mental health services began to gain traction in 2006 when the Child Mental Health Initiative out of SAMHSA stepped up efforts to encourage federal grantees to strengthen youth-driven voice in decision-making about the design and delivery of mental health services.

As federal grantees began to include youth in their planning efforts, predictably, we saw a range of involvement, from token representation on planning committees (to be able to say you had “youth voice”) to more substantial involvement in planning what services should look like. Most youth initiatives that were created as part of federally funded grants operated under the direction and fiscal management of a parent organization, typically a family advocacy organization or a mental health service provider. What is rare are examples of youth advocacy organizations who have been able to move beyond being directed by other organizations, to providing youth directed services and supports independently. Youth ERA is a shining example of an organization that has not only thrived in its infancy as a youth-oriented project but moved beyond the scope of the national efforts that birthed it to become a vibrant 501 c3 organization that continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible in youth advocacy.

What Makes Youth ERA Stand Out From Other Advocacy Organizations?
How is it that this organization can continually reinvent itself to be just that far ahead of everyone else? I think part of it is that they don't worry about competing "with everyone else." They stay focused on their very simple, yet elegant mission statement. 

Youth ERA works to empower young people and create breakthroughs with the dedicated systems that serve them.

Youth ERA focuses on the word "empower" in their mission statement. The word "empower" gets used a lot in advocacy circles, especially when organizations try to articulate what it is they do to help teach advocacy to their members and followers. If truth be told, however, the word empower, or empowerment has too often been used to connote something more related to "doing for" as opposed to helping individuals kindle an awakening within. This is a subtle yet importantly powerful distinction. If I empower you through the divine wisdom of my view of the world about how things should be done, I create a mini-me - an individual who becomes empowered through my lens, and my lens only. And that is what we see with so many advocacy organizations. They develop success doing things a certain way and then teach "the way" to their followers. The problem is that like anything else, "the way," with all of its constrictions, both seen and unseen, eventually becomes stale, old and increasingly narrow focused. And when that begins to happen, the ability to see beyond the known possibilities of what can be achieved becomes lost.

In the most recent Youth ERA video, the narrator describes how Youth ERA defines empowerment, and by extension, their approach to advocacy:

“Empowerment isn’t about saving someone or making them better. Empowerment merely washes away the darkness to reveal the light. Sometimes when you lose, you win. And sometimes when you are lost, you are found.” 

Empowerment merely washes away the darkness to reveal the light.  Such power in these words. The Youth ERA approach fights the temptation to overlay a prescription for empowerment, and instead, creates an environment that helps reveal, nurture and support the potential that is in all of us. 

Building a Foundation of Mission-Driven Services and Supports
By focusing on direct service, training, and advocacy, Youth ERA is modeling a strong foundation for creating lasting change for young people in communities across the country. Here are the strategically designed service offerings that frame and support the mission of Youth ERA’s approach to empowerment:

 

Don't Forget the 'Cool' Factor
The array and diversity of services and supports provided by Youth ERA are indeed impressive, but equally impressive is their uncanny knack for defining what is cool by constantly experimenting with how to incorporate the latest technology into their efforts to promote health and wellness for young adults. The results of their efforts are beyond impressive! 

Youth ERA in Action – Response to Violent Attack on the Campus of Ohio State University
The best way to convey how Youth ERA is revolutionizing youth advocacy is through example. On November 28th, 2016, a man was shot and killed on the campus of Ohio State University after he struck a group of pedestrians with a car and then got out and cut people with a butcher knife. Students on campus were understandably traumatized.

Upon hearing about the attack, the discussion at Youth ERA headquarters about responding was not about whether or not a Youth ERA crisis mobilization team should go to the campus but was more about how soon they could get on a flight.

Within 24 hours of the shooting, Youth ERA reached out to the university counseling and consultation center to get resources and gain an understanding of what services were available and how to best support the population in a way that was culturally responsive. This was key, as an important component of Youth ERA’s crisis response work is to connect participants with support people in their own life and more formal supports available in the community. 

As is often the case when Youth ERA responds to a crisis, at first, there was hesitation about welcoming the Youth ERA team to the Ohio State University. Who were these people from Oregon? And what exactly was it they were proposing to do? Let’s just say the reception to Youth ERA’s offer to provide support wasn’t overwhelmingly embraced by University officials.

But this did not deter Youth ERA. In fact, I don’t think there is much that does deter Youth ERA. After all, these are young adults who have had to overcome a lifetime of being told what they cannot do, what they cannot achieve, and why they should just accept things and settle for “good enough.” Youth ERA doesn’t operate in the land of “just good enough.”

After the initial contact and gathering of information about services available to students, the discussion of Youth ERA setting up a information and support station as part of a University offering of support took a more protracted turn. While appreciative of the offer to help, University officials indicated that there would need to be discussions within the University decision-making structure before a commitment could be made. And those discussions would take time - a normal and in many ways reasonable approach for the University, and indeed most established organizations.

But Youth ERA knew, based on their experience leading crisis response efforts after shootings at both a community college and a high school in Oregon, that time is a critical ally if you can get in early. Time is a foe if you let too much go by before mobilizing a response that goes beyond things such as candlelight vigils and large group gatherings, which do much to generate feelings of solidarity and support but may not allow for individual expression.

“The positive coming together of a community after an event like this, is healthy for the larger community but it can leave people closest to the trauma or who are the most deeply affected feeling isolated because they don't want to break the positive vibe.” – Martin Rafferty

So, when University officials politely discussed the need for further review of the Youth ERA offer, the leadership team from Youth ERA forged ahead on a parallel path of action. They knew from previous similar crises that they had been involved with, the earlier they could get on the ground and set up safe spaces for young people to share their feelings or just plain “be,” the better.

Since they didn’t have permission to set up at the University health center, the team from Youth ERA went to a local Panera Bread restaurant (a popular hangout for University students) and asked the manager if they could set up there. The manager welcomed them with open arms, and in less than a few hours the Youth ERA “Buckeye Empowered” event was set up and open for business!

Word quickly spread about the Youth ERA presence, and in no time, local news agencies were onsite, conducting interviews and encouraging those watching to come to the Panera restaurant to learn more about available resources.

Martin Rafferty, Executive Director of Youth ERA, describes the mobilization process this way:

“It is important to know that part of our work is gathering local resources on the ground, and helping students navigate those resources. We are also doing follow-up work with students who need more support through social media. Just as we did at the Umpqua Community College and Reynolds High School (Oregon schools that experienced a school shooting), we will continue to follow up with those youth and collect information on how to better understand how to work with youth who have experienced this kind of trauma.”

After the event, members of the Youth ERA team described how their approach to youth had such a positive impact on students during the event and on campus. One team leader said "we had the honor of normalizing and valuing the student's unique experience. We had the pleasure of hearing their fears and concerns and hearing what they were thankful for. Although our time there was short I hope that students felt and knew in their heart and in their bones that they have value, their experience matters, and know where to reach out to so they don't fall through the cracks."

Youth ERA has perfected a unique approach to their work with communities in the aftermath of a shooting or violent incident by combining a quick response presence to be available to youth, maximizing the use of social media, and strategic follow-up with youth who need a more robust response.

For the outreach effort in Ohio, Facebook outreach garnered 292 thousand views. Three hundred fifty young people on campus were physically advertised to (i.e., handed flyers, spoke to groups of students, etc.) and 250 young people attended the Youth ERA booth. Approximately 62% of the youth who sought resources came from being informed on social media. The event was advertised on different social media platforms including Whisper, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook. 

Consider this quote from a Youth ERA staff member, who was inspired to write after Youth ERA deployed their mobile crisis team to Ohio State University.

It's about building young people up, not about tearing them down (or) placing them under permanent labels. It looks like critical thinking and feels like resilience. It's strengthened by Youth with different backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences. Flaws and all... Let the movement begin.

The quote quickly became a poster that serves as an inspirational reminder of the essence of what Youth ERA is all about:

youthmovetestimony

Good on ya’ Youth ERA. Flaws and all, let the movement begin.

If you want to learn more about Youth ERA and discuss ways to become involved in the Empowerment Revolution, contact them here.

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scott

 Scott Bryant-Comstock
President & CEO
Children's Mental Health Network

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