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Passing the mic to young leaders

By Kendall LaVine, Policy Fellow for Violence Against Women Initiatives

Biden Fellow Kendall LaVine poses with a group of Youth LEADS participants after a listening session with YWCA San Antonio.

The Biden Foundation is proud to present the Youth LEADS Report, which shares the findings and recommendations from an initiative to engage young people in conversations about their experiences with gender-based violence.

Throughout 2018, the Youth LEADS team facilitated 15 listening sessions with over 200 youth across the country ranging from 13 to 23 years of age. Each group had a unique understanding of this issue and familiarity of gender-based violence. We are honored to highlight the voices and experiences of youth leaders themselves in a report that is developed with and for youth leaders.

The Youth LEADS project set out to identify needs, gaps, and trends for youth around gender-based violence. Listening sessions provided a platform for youth to talk about their personal experiences and struggles with violence in their communities. From these conversations, we learned that youth experience and witness high levels of violence throughout their daily lives and that they use significant energy to keep themselves safe. Youth participants reminded us that gender-based violence can have severe long-lasting effects on a victim’s mental, physical, and/or sexual health and youth-serving organizations must have a keen understanding of these health implications on young people in order to better recognize signs of trauma.

Youth stressed that efforts to prevent gender-based violence must include a robust and intersectional framework that requires us to think critically about the ways in which different aspects of identity — race, ethnicity, gender, call, sexual orientation — shape individuals’ experiences of gender-based violence. Repeatedly, listening session participants noted that education and intervention are critical components of changing the culture to end gender-based violence and must start early.

Despite the diversity of the youth participants’ lived experiences, they all shared a common need: Young people can no longer be excluded from conversations about issues that affect them. They need to have a seat at the table.

In every listening session, youth expressed frustration that they are not already playing central roles in efforts that directly impact them. Youth leaders want and need adults to listen to their needs and collaborate with them. Young people can play critical roles in prevention efforts and they want to be involved in the community education and activism on this issue. They need supportive adult allies who are investing in youth leadership.

As I think about the young people who bravely shared their experiences with us for this project, I am reminded of the biggest takeaway from this work: Passing the mic and supporting youth as they discuss their realities with gender-based violence is how culture change starts. The process holds immense healing power.

Carving out space for youth to speak openly and honestly about their experiences without fear of judgment is the most important step we as organizations, adults, and educators can take to support youth leaders. We have the responsibility to provide youth with the resources they need, but we can’t do that without hearing from them first and including them in the process.

We hope that youth-serving organizations and other stakeholders consider the findings and recommendations outlined in our report when developing programming to prevent gender-based violence. We challenge you to reflect on the ways you use your platforms and resources to uplift youth voices. Most importantly, we encourage you to engage in the process and start having conversations with the youth in your life about what they need to be successful leaders.

Through Youth LEADS, we know that youth voices are the key to achieving our goals of cultural and social change; it’s time we pass the mic.

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.