By: Daisy Rocha Issue: Innovation, Growth, Job Creation Section: Opinion
A Youth Perspective
Six years ago, when I was 12, I walked into YouthBiz for the first time. I was stunned to see people, not much older than myself, running a program that advances the social and economic empowerment of youth through a focus on entrepreneurship, education, and community leadership. On that first day, I knew I would be a leader in this organization. With all of the new responsibilities and expectations of a first job, over time, I began to understand how important the entrepreneurial, academic, and leadership skills were to my future. YouthBiz uses a peer-to-peer leadership model. Youth who have excelled in the foundational programs are hired to facilitate classes, participate in program evaluations, and engage in curriculum development. When I started the program, I realized the youth leaders were not much different from me. In fact, they were just kids from school, or neighbors, or friends. But seeing them lead at YouthBiz, I saw a different side of them. They had an intention and goal, not only to teach, but to help others help themselves.
Early on, I had the ambition to become a youth leader and was willing to do whatever it took to earn that position. By the age of 15, I proved my dedication and was hired on as a youth leader. During my tenure, I had to overcome many challenges, but this only made my experience richer because I was able to share my story, my struggles, and my triumphs with other youth. I was proud to set an example of accomplishment for my fellow peers and trainees, and I would soon realize how unbelievable it was to be a part of a program run by young adults.
YouthBiz is not only an after-school program, but a first job experience for youths in a predominately low-income neighborhood with few options for employment. Many young people apply to the program because they see the financial incentive as a way to earn money and help their often financially struggling parents. Last year, the organization conducted an extensive survey asking young people what they valued most about their experience at YouthBiz. It was a surprise to find that the financial incentive was the primary reason most kids applied. However, by the time students completed the program, skills and knowledge gained became the primary reason for participation.
In some neighborhoods, the odds are often against the kids finding success and opportunities. There is a perception that there is no alternative to the neighborhood norms of poverty, lack of opportunities for education, and gang affiliation. I have worked with so many students who tell me, “I’m stuck here. I don’t know what to do to make a future for myself.” YouthBiz targets northeast Denver neighborhoods where the high school graduation rate is below 50 percent, one-third of children live in poverty, and there are higher rates of violence compared to any surrounding neighborhood.
We must change the path. We need more programs and businesses that are willing to hire youths in leadership positions, giving them the opportunity to develop and apply their knowledge and strengths in a real-world setting.
I have taught hundreds of students at my time with YouthBiz, but Omar really stands out. One day he stood up to do his public speaking presentation. I asked him, “Are you sure you don’t want to use your notecards? They will help you talk about your main points.” He simply replied, “I don’t need notecards to remind me of what I have to say.” As he shared the challenges facing him, his failures and victories, I saw a change in him. His story held the class in awe — they were speechless as this fourteen-year-old talked about how drugs and gang affiliation encircled his world, but how he was resolved to choose a different path for himself.
At that moment, I realized how lucky I was to be part of an organization creating space for young people to be honest and hopeful, while inspiring others to envision and work towards their future. Knowing and working with the participants closely, I see the need for and value of job creation for our communities. So many young people, like Omar, feel they do not have options to build a future for themselves. I believe job creation means empowerment to pursue and innovate ideas, allows people to provide for themselves, their families, and the community around them. And I know, this economic empowerment can lead to social empowerment.
I am stronger today because of my affiliation with YouthBiz. My experiences have taught me the importance of inspiring and supporting young adults to overcome obstacles, and it has broadened my views, especially working with such diversity. In the fall of 2011, I will attend the Metropolitan State College of Denver where I plan to major in Journalism and minor in Communications so that I can capture and report such true-life stories like Omar’s. Because of my experience at YouthBiz, I have been enabled to pursue my goals, become a role model in my neighborhood, and work towards the empowerment of the young adults in a community.
Imagine a network of young people, empowered with character, vision, and leadership in every community. Powerful, isn’t it?
Job creation translates to a more secure community that can invest in schools and young people’s futures, and can bring positive change to society’s perception of a neighborhood. I see YouthBiz and similar youth development programs as an opportunity for students to open new doors to their future and for their community. Rarely are we given the opportunity to make a significant difference in the life of another person. YouthBiz gave me the drive to push myself to do what seemed impossible. My experience has prepared me to get out there, set big goals for myself, and pursue a life filled with passion and dedication. Before my early YouthBiz days, I would have been afraid to step out as a leader, but now I seek opportunities for leadership and to advance my career.
We need programs to support our youth. Throughout history, young people have driven innovation and change. We cannot ignore the intelligence, drive, and valuable resources that they bring to the table. To not invest in these communities, we are missing a huge opportunity to empower young people who can approach the enormous social and economic challenges facing our neighborhoods with ingenuity, an awareness of the fabric of the community, and a dedication to creating positive change because it is their home.
Daisy Rocha is a YouthBiz Youth Marketing & Fundraising Intern and a high school senior.