Our recent Youth Conservation Leadership Institute training was a stellar success! The full-day workshop was planned and led by AmeriCorps volunteer Everett Secor in partnership with Alliance Community Engagement Manager Marisa Wilson. Read Everett’s reflection on the event below.
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” – Socrates
Complaining about the apathy and churlishness of a new generation of youth is a pastime that dates back to the beginning of written history. But taking the time to listen to them, to understand the shifting dynamics of people born to an entirely new era reveals a wealth of knowledge that would be catastrophic to waste. As my time as an educator has led me to believe, and my work with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance confirmed, children are far more than just the future. They are, as much as anyone can be, part of an attunement to the present. Adolescence is a period of life that exists in constant interplay between shaping and being shaped by culture. Kids’ entire personalities and ideological views are entirely open to being shaped by the world around them. Teenagers drive trends, innovation, and entire markets of technology and art. Youth as a whole are the most susceptible people to the impacts of social change.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to partner with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance as part of my AmeriCorps Service. When Marisa Wilson, the Alliance’s Community Engagement Manager, approached me with the idea of creating a community organizing training for young students, I enthusiastically jumped on board. The curriculum, based around the Alliance’s Conservation Leadership Institute, was designed to give students a one-day training on the basics of creating a campaign. It began with a brief, game-based introduction around the general terminology found in community organizing, followed by several examples of successful campaigns including highlighting the immense power of personal narratives leveraged by students from Parkland, Florida in the March for Our Lives campaign. From there, it provided students the opportunity to identify issues they wanted to address and walked them step by step through the process of setting goals, identifying partners and policy levers, crafting a communications strategy, and taking action. The final piece was stressing the ability for students – all well below voting age – to still take part in the democratic process by sharing their voices and even contacting their elected representatives.
While crafting all the materials and framework for this training was the key portion of my AmeriCorps Service, I was also fortunate enough to facilitate the first iteration of this training on May 17. The workshop was titled “Youth Conservation Leadership Institute (YCLI),” and the group was the upcoming student council from Jackson Hole Middle School. While I felt the typical amount of nervousness an educator feels before meeting their students for the first time, that nervousness quickly abated when, during one of our first activities around letting each student identify something that mattered to them, a student said “gay rights” so casually and confidently with simple nods from their classmates. This answer, that would have been met with laughs, stares, or worse during my middle school years only a little over a decade ago, was a totally normal, acceptable concern to these students, and gave me a strong reminder of the purpose of listening to and elevating the voices of young people. I can teach them how to write a letter, or set a goal, or find partners, but the key elements of compassion and empathy that drive the best work are already inherent to them from a young age, and all we have to do is to help them leverage that rather than suppress it.
The rest of the training went, as I described to friends later that day, “better than I could have possibly hoped” thanks to the continued engagement and interest shown by the students. The example campaigns they crafted included attempts to prevent bullying, provide snack cart access at their school expanded to students instead of just teachers, and retracing the steps the Alliance is taking in advocating for Wildlife Crossings across Wyoming. This variety allowed them to consider the wide range in scale of change possible through simple actions. In the afternoon, we took a tour of the County building, learning about the different government processes that occur there, and giving them a chance to hear from and ask questions of the chair and vice chair of the County Commission. After sharing the key elements of their example campaigns to each other, they finished off the day hearing from Wyoming State Representative Andy Schwartz, even practicing their advocacy skills by engaging in a lively discussion with him about the value of homework. I hope what I witnessed in that room was just the beginning in a lifetime of speaking up for themselves and their peers.
I could not have asked for a better project for my AmeriCorps Service, a better community partner in the Alliance, or a better group of kids than the group from JHMS. A big thanks to Amelia Howe for connecting me with the Alliance, to Marisa, Molly, Tiana, and everyone else at the Alliance, to Alivia Bingham at JHMS, to Representative Andy Schwartz, to Commissioners Mark Newcomb and Natalia Macker, and everyone else at the County building, and most importantly to the wonderful students who participated in this work.