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Empowering youth to create futures without gender-based violence

By Kendall LaVine, Biden Fellow for Violence Against Women Initiatives

The Biden Foundation Youth LEADS team with Maine Boys to Men on May 25, 2018.

This spring, the Biden Foundation launched the Youth LEADS (Leverage, Energize and Define Solutions) initiative to empower youth voices in the fight to end gender-based violence. Through a series of listening sessions, we set out to engage with youth directly in open conversations about violence in their communities.

We know that 80 percent of sexual assault victims experience their first assault before they are 25 years old. While this violence impacts youth at incredibly high rates, they are often left out of the conversation. That’s why we’re turning to youth leaders as the drivers of the solutions to change the culture.

During the listening sessions, we ask each group a set of questions developed to help us identify trends, barriers, and gaps in their community that perpetuate cycles of violence. This acts as a framework for youth to think about systems of violence, safety, power, and more.

We have now held 12 listening sessions across the country spanning from Portland, Maine, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana—and we plan to have two more before the end of the year. Each session is vastly different from the next as every participant comes to the conversation with unique lived and cultural experiences. Despite these differences, it is clear that youth want to engage in this critical conversation about gender-based violence.

The Youth LEADS team with the YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge on October 13, 2018.

When we first started this project, I expected the participants to feel timid about speaking with us on such a sensitive topic. I was shocked at the depth to which each group took the conversation. Discussions have ranged from why communities of marginalized identities are impacted by violence at greater rates to how destructive gender roles perpetuate violence. The youth participants share anger that such violence is still so prevalent in our society and they all express their desire to be acknowledged, listened to, and believed. They need programs and policies that include their input and they yearn for tools to address the many facets of gender-based violence head on.

Youth engagement around social issues is not new in practice, but the March for Our Lives movement acted as a catalyst for our support of youth activism in this country. Youth voices continue to challenge destructive social and political power structures by holding our communities accountable and eliciting change.

We know that youth are capable of organizing, mobilizing, and leading nationwide movements, but they are rarely included in decision-making that affects them. As youth-serving organizations, educators, and policy makers, it’s time we broaden our definition of leadership and include youth in conversations about issues that impact them directly. We have the responsibility to provide youth leaders with the resources they need to create lasting change in their communities.

A youth leader at a listening session in Washington, D.C., said: “It is about influencing our generation. We can’t wait to make a change. We have to do this now.” There is a call to action to redefine what we as a society will consider acceptable around gender-based violence, and young people are at the forefront of that expedition. They are on a mission; the Biden Foundation is committed to supporting their mission with the resources they need. I can’t wait to follow their lead.


The Youth LEADS team in St. Paul, Minnesota, with Casa de Esperanza on October 18, 2018.

This post is part of our “The Heart of the Issue” series, blogs authored by the Biden Fellows. Each Fellow has a close connection to one or more of the Biden Foundation’s policy pillars, and their updates will bring you straight to the heart of the issues that drive our work forward. Read the previous issue here.