Spotlighting Powerful Young Voices Driving Systemic Change in Durham
- February 3, 2022
- Posted by: Black and Belonging
- Category: Youth Voice Initiatives
What does it mean to cultivate the next generation of community organizers and game-changers? At times, rather than supporting youth in exercising their agency today, society has a tendency to tokenize young leaders through public speaking forums that end in verbal praise yet fail put their ideas into action. However, in Durham, North Carolina, such a dated approach is being shaken off—and something revolutionary, exciting, and entirely youth-propelled is springing up in its place.
Within a recent youth-led panel on Durham’s social justice movements—generously coordinated by the city’s own Office On Youth in partnership with Equitable Community Engagement as a part of their Our Community Stories series the—three incredible young voices were amplified. Each one provided inspiring insight into how they are affecting real change within their communities, while also paving the way for others to do the same.
Listening to the voices of today’s youth activists means gaining the privilege of stepping into the next generation’s shoes and sharing their unique perspectives. It gives us insight into the potential of today’s movements; a potential that—with these bright young minds at the helm—is likely to be one filled with vision, innovation, and authenticity.
Here, we dive into some of the highlights of what speakers Aminah Jenkins, Aissa Dearing, and Kristopher (Kris) Smith had to say. Not only do they share some of their own experiences, but they also reveal answers to vital questions—such as how adults can authentically support youth activists, and how fellow activists can find a path towards success when facing adults whose behaviors may be invalidating.
Exploring ideas ranging from how young people can protect their mental health, to the art of leaving a legacy, there’s a lot to cover. But first, a shout-out must also be made to moderator Nori McDuffie, Youth Project Assistant for the Office on Youth, for creating a space within which bright minds could shine! Read on to discover some of what was discussed, and find a link to the entire talk at the end.
Fully Stepping Into the Youth Perspective
It can feel like a fight to have youth voices heard, and even more so to stop that momentum from getting side-tracked. So says Aminah Jenkins, who was born in Rhode Island and moved to Durham at age 7. Today, she is studying Public Policy and Education at Meredith College.
Aminah’s mother grew up in Durham and went to the same high school, so she has the perspective to compare and contrast how the educational experiences and systematic inequities experienced by young people of color have evolved. With this historical backdrop guiding her work, Aminah’s observation has been that young people tend to start the work on their own, but their causes are eventually infiltrated by adult organizations that are trying to help, but ultimately end up using young voices to further their own priorities and narratives.
In Aminah’s experience, there was a lot of showy recognition for activism—like awards, panels, and speaking opportunities at her school—but no tangible action. She took this roadblock not as a source of discouragement, but as a cue to break through.
Aminah’s passion for student activism and organizing took off when she led a Black Lives Matter rally in her sophomore year of high school. She found that students were looking for places to express their passion and have their voices heard. After the rally, she co-founded the Allies for Racial Equity Club with a friend to centralize that conversation. Through this work, she discovered her passion for education. She explains, “I feel the most empowered in situations where I’m talking to my peers who validate the work and understand that what needs to be done is not currently being done.”
But there is still more to be done. “Young people take on a lot of extra work outside of their school or employment for little outcome,” she said. “I am still struggling to step into my power in this regard.” So, how can adults support youth activists in a way that isn’t tokenizing?
Cultivating Authentic Allyship for Youth Activists
Youth activists dedicate their lives to causes on top of school, work, and a variety of other commitments. To make it sustainable, Aissa Dearing—a senior at Howard University—believes that youth activists should be compensated for their work and resources. “Authentic allyship from adults looks like helping us do some of the grunt work, donating to our campaigns, and paying us for our time.”
For Aissa, starting out in youth organizing in Durham was disheartening and felt tokenizing at times. She discovered that many supposed adult allies wanted to show that they had youth in their spaces or the aesthetic of BLM, but they were not actually providing the support and action needed. The values and goals of the young people and adults were not aligned, and the community was not reciprocating Aissa’s energy. Now, she’s found more success, but it calls for a degree of self-protection. Chiming with Aminah’s words, Aissa shared, “I feel most powerful among my peers but stretching out into the community can be extremely taxing sometimes.”
Aissa was born and raised in Durham, and is currently majoring in history and environmental science and minoring in geography. As a next step on her ambitious agenda, she recently was accepted the prestigious Marshall Scholarship to the University of Oxford to study Environmental Change and Management. Despite a close relationship with nature growing up, Aissa never saw herself as an environmental or social advocate. Commonly discussed issues such as sea-level rise and polar bear habitat loss seemed so distant from what young people in Durham struggled with. However, Aissa quickly realized that everything is connected.
So, she co-founded the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative to create an intentional space for young people activated around climate justice. Now, she sees racial equity issues present in Durham every day, from inequities in public schools, food access, housing, and more—and she’s got wisdom to share on how these issues can be tackled head-on.
Harnessing Youth Voices to Move the Needle on Equity Issues
Growing up in Durham, Kris Smith (a junior at Durham School of the Arts) encountered several people who talked the city down and disassociated their identities from Durham; this did not sit right with him. At the age of just 16, alongside his studies of guitar and creative writing, Kris has dedicated himself to helping improve the image of Durham. He is active with the Go Durham Bus Project which works to fix up Durham bus stops that are in poor conditions and lack proper shelters or seating. He is also a Youth Leader with the Fayetteville Street Fellows.
Demonstrating what can be achieved with determination, Kris reflected back on a petition he led to save the local skate rink—an important space for young people to hang out and gather safely—saying, “I really enjoyed working on the petition to save Wheels.” Indeed, Wheels is an important hub for the community, giving young people of color a safe, meaningful place to go after school and find positive connection. For the petition, Kris needed 1000 signatures, but he quickly gathered over 2500. “The best part was that it wasn’t just teenagers signing—adults were interested too. The whole community got behind it.”
Navigating Challenges as a Youth Activist
Alongside sticking to principles and working towards a goal, Aminah and Aissa had some powerful advice to share on navigating the challenges of youth activism. For those who find themselves in a situation that feels invalidating or tokenizing, Aminah recommends trying to explain the situation to those involved. Where that fails, she shares, sometimes it’s just better to leave the situation—instead, creating your own space in which to find validation and push for impact.
Aissa agreed with Aminah, but has found that it can be a struggle to create safe spaces for young people when they don’t have time or resources to gather. “It is hard to solve systematic environmental injustices when you have class at 9 am or work after school,” she said. “I navigate and find balance by finding systems of support that I can trust, that can compensate me for my work, and that support me in ways that are authentic.” Happily, a growing number of organizations are stepping up in dedication to authentically lifting youth voices.
Safeguarding the Self Along the Way
All three youth activists had something to say on striking a thoughtful balance between activism and self-care. For Aminah, her view on the importance of prioritizing mental wellbeing is rooted in not having taken care of her mental health in high school. “I ended up in a lot of situations where I heard harmful words from adults who did not consider how it would affect my mental health,” she reflected.
Sharing boldly, Aminah explained further, “I developed trust issues and became afraid to say no, because it felt like if I didn’t do something then nothing would get done. I didn’t want to put other people in the spaces and have them go through what I went through.” However, through these experiences, Aminah discovered that taking care of her mental health looks like saying “no” more, and taking time for herself in completely separate spaces from advocacy. She also loves reading for fun.
Aissa has also been learning how to say “no” lately, as well as how to delegate more. “I’ve been turning down events, prioritizing schoolwork, and handing off opportunities to other young people. This helps me take care of myself while giving everyone opportunities,” she said—also noting that she has close relationships with the people she works with, so she can relax and hang out with friends while she gets things done. But it is also important to make time to connect with friends and family outside of the work, she urged. Additionally, she enjoys spending time outdoors and going for walks.
To Kris, mental stability is everything: “If your head isn’t right, you’re not going to be right.” He recommends always having something to keep you sane. Get unplugged and don’t always be so caught up in what’s going on in the world and trending; focus on something that’s just for you. Kris personally likes reading, writing, music, and exercise. Finally, he also reminded us that it’s OK to take detours and breaks; to be open to new experiences and not stay on the same track forever; to always be expanding your skills and knowledge. In understanding that none of us know it all—whether young or adult—we discover the place where humility and impact truly begins.
Building Durham’s Youth Legacy
For these youth activists, there is more to the mission than simply leaving a mark. Positively changing the landscape of their local communities means create space for other youth activists who may step up alongside them—and those who will do the work of extending the path further in the future.
For Aminah, education will be her vehicle. She hopes to be a high school social studies teacher who makes a positive impact on students, just as a teacher once did for her. “I was inspired by how she engaged with and advocated for students outside of the classroom,” Aminah shared. “So, I want to leave behind a legacy as a teacher who encourages students to learn outside of the parameters of education and gives them the connections they need to be given opportunities outside of the classroom.”
Aissa aims to see more seats for young people on school boards and in offices, beyond the Office of Youth or other for-youth spaces. “Young people are usually only called upon for “youth advice,” but I’d love to make all spaces safer and more comfortable for young people to participate authentically,” she said. A big part of this vision is a drive to make youth movements more inclusive, bringing more young people into Durham’s many spaces. As a member of the Environmental Affairs Board for her city and county, it’s clear that Aissa is already on her way.
On the question of legacy, Kris shared his vision that making waves at such a young age will help other teenagers in Durham feel empowered to be something great. Whether related to activism or not, he hopes to provide inspiration that motivates others to pursue happy, productive, and successful futures. “Success to me is not money or social status but feeling that you accomplished something and are happy with it,” he specified. Now, that is wisdom that we can all embrace.
So, there you have it. Just a taste of some of the sparks of insight shared at the recent youth-led panel hosted by the City of Durham’s Office on Youth in partnership with Equitable Community Engagement. Don’t forget that you can check out a replay of the entire panel here if you’d like to hear more from Aminah, Aissa, and Kris.