Amplifying Youth Voice: Nothing About Us Without Us!
Our guests: Adriana Gonzalez and Ashley Naomi Rodriguez of Youth Funding Youth Ideas
You’ve probably heard the rallying cry and support the sentiment in principle. But for most children and teens, the practice is dramatically different, especially for young people who are poor, undocumented or in mixed-status families, LGBTQI, of color, or hold other marginalized identities. Happily, some organizations are lifting up youth voices, and it's crucial that we learn what they have to teach us.
Watch our conversation with Adriana Gonzalez and Ashley Naomi Rodriguez of Youth Funding Youth Ideas. Adriana and Ashley talk about some ways adult allies can increase youth voice and youth leadership, and share their model and best practices. Find a lightly edited transcript, their slides and bios below.
EmbraceRace: Today's conversation is about elevating the voices of young people. We'll be talking about the work of Youth Funding Youth Ideas (YFYI), which is part of a larger initiative that we'll hear more about, too. We're excited about what they're doing. One of our goals at EmbraceRace is to support children and adults to become more effective racial justice advocates for all kids. This work can't start and stop with the kids in our lives in an immediate sense. We need to be centering youth voices in our organizations and communities, too. So this work that our two guests are doing is right on point. Ashley and Adriana, thanks for being here, welcome!
Ashley: Thank you for the introduction! We are Youth Funding Youth Ideas. You'll hear us refer to the program as YFYI. But first, we want to talk about the organization that houses us, kind of like our mom. And that's CHALK.
CHALK stands for Communities in Harmony Advocating for Learning and Kids. We get a lot of questions like, do you guys sell chalkboards or have chalk? No we don't! CHALK was founded in 1996, and it's a community-based organization in San Francisco.
CHALK provides a bunch of services that all focus on two things. And that's transformative youth development and employment. So young people in our program are trained, they're supported and gain job and life skills all while they're able to contribute positively to the community.
Ashley: Specifically we work with young people that are 14 to 24 years of age and we refer to them as "opportunity youth." We try to steer away from saying "high-risk" because we do understand that a lot of power comes with words and language and young people are labeled a lot. So we try to change the dynamic from something that's deficit-focused to more positives, so they're "opportunity-youth."
Adriana: CHALK's philosophy is that young people can do anything with the appropriate amount of training and support. So there's a few programs that make up CHALK, that are under CHALK, including Youth Funding Youth Ideas (YFFI), that's us. We're a social philanthropy program that trains youth to become community philanthropists.
Adriana: YFYI was first created in 2003. Since then we have funded over 300 youth-led projects and granted over $2.5 million. We've also had 70 youth that have worked here and helped develop and shape YFYI to be what we are today.
Ashley: Historically, philanthropy has been very one-sided so that people in power are not young people, they're not people of color, and they're not people who don't come from wealth. So they're usually white, older, cis, het men, or women sometimes. YFYI has done very well at breaking that narrative because we do youth-led, social justice philanthropy.
We also try to invest in the experiences of young people, so again we engage opportunity-youth from different backgrounds, ages 14 to 24, that come from disconnected or marginalized communities. And we do that intentionally because we feel like young people who have faced issues are the ones who can best advocate and be agents of change.
People who have positions of power that are giving money back to the community blindly might not have the best intentions or be doing it in the best way, so we're shifting the narrative and the power. We also know that young people have expert knowledge which is not often recognized in academia or in schools, but they do.
They know the root causes of issues because they are the ones that are living in them or working in them or experiencing them in schools. They know what kinds of solutions can work but oftentimes don't have the resources to make the solutions happen. So that's where we come in. We give them the funds to make that a reality. So we're just really funding their ideas and investing in people and community because we have relationships with the youth leaders from our projects. And that's basically it. We support young people in our programs, and also young people that are the leaders of our projects, to be agents of change. Here are some examples of some projects that we've funded.
Adriana: The Healing Garden Project was made in a high school called Leadership High School. They came up to us and wanted to build a garden that would allow youth to experience herbal medicine and self-care techniques and a safe space for all students to learn about relaxation, stress reduction and ancestral medicine. And the garden is in the school so anyone can access the garden.
Ashley: And they also bring in local herbalists and people who practice curanderismo and stuff like that. For folks who don't know, San Francisco's been facing gentrification for a couple of years ... like hard. So a lot of the culture that lived in specific neighborhoods is no longer there. So to be able to have access to herbal medicine in a society where we're Western medicine is dominant is huge.
We also funded Project WHAT and the what stands for "We are Here And Talking." And they basically focus on spreading awareness about the rights that children have, specifically children with incarcerated parents. So a lot of children when they go visit their parents in jails and prisons don't know that they have the right to hug their parent or talk to their parent. So WHAT has been on the forefront advocating for the rights of children [in that context]. And they recently created the first ever data report gathering the data in San Francisco for children that have incarcerated parents. And they created policy recommendations, too. We have their little booklet. And it was completely youth-led. They do a lot of good work.
They've also done like a Bill of Rights for Kids with Incarcerated Parents. So, for example, number one is, I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent's arrest.
So things like that, that could be very traumatizing and that kids might not even know that they have a right to these things. And they're one of the few advocates that do that and they've been doing the work for ten plus years. We were one of their first funders.
We also have other funding categories. We just recently changed that but we have projects that are very art-based, education-based.
Adriana: Art-ivism, Entrepreneurship, Education for Liberation... There are about eight categories all together.
Adriana: At YFYI we hire every two years and we hire as part time because many of the kids we hire are still in school, so we can only work like six to 10 hours a week. But during the summer we're able to work up to 15 hours. We also have adult supervision which is Ashley, she's our coordinator. But we also have a peer supervisor and a senior supervisor and those, too, are youth. They're like us. Like Ashley said, she was a peer supervisor at 17 years old, right?
Ashley: Yeah, at 17. And this time a year ago I was still senior supervisor. I didn't become a coordinator until July of 2017 but I had been with the program for seven years. We have different layers of leadership.
Adriana: The office has really late hours. It opens at 12 noon and stays open until 8. Most of us are still in school and can't come in until about 4:30. And for us to be able to get our hours in we would have to stay open until 7:30 or 8. So that's why the office is open until 8:00. We are the grant makers. We literally pair up, the staff members pair up, and the projects come and pitch their ideas. We have to take really nice detailed notes and then we create a precís to present at the funding meeting. At the end of all the interviews we have a funding meeting for which we all get together and we present our precís on the projects that we interviewed. Then we vote - and that's where it gets tricky because some people may be very passionate about some projects and others don't want to fund them. And we just start arguing - it just gets crazy. But they're fun and we have food. There was once we didn't get out the office until 10:00 at night because it was not long. It was my first funding meeting, too!
Ashley: But we respected labor laws, OK!
EmbraceRace: Good to know!
Adriana: Yeah, it's really fun because the staff gets passionate about it. Like I even got passionate about it this past funding meeting that we had. I was arguing to get a project funded and at the end of the day it got funded.
Ashley: And it's all the youth. I [as the adult coordinator] have no say in which projects do or don't get funded.
Adriana: Yeah, we decide. And we let the projects know within a week if they got funded or not. And if they don't get funded, we provide services to help them improve their application or their ideas if they're underdeveloped.
The funded projects, too, are totally youth-led. And if we see an adult ally being too involved then we just don't fund it and we let them know why.
And all YFYI youth are trained before starting to work in philanthropy for 60 hours, before going into the field, and that's like working here in the office. So they're trained in active listening skills, healthy relationships, professional communication. They have public speaking and anti-sexual harassment and other workshops to prepare them.
Ashley: We have this tradition in one of the trainings which is called "30 seconds on me." Every person during the public speaking one has to do 30 seconds of talking about yourself. And you have to complete the 30 seconds. When I first started I think I cried 15 seconds in, I could never speak in front of people. And then at the end of the training you have "one minute on me." And that was like a lot easier. Now, I still get nervous but I'm way better than I was when I first started. Like I don't cry.
EmbraceRace: You haven't cried once tonight so ...
Ashley: Not yet! No, I'm kidding!
Adriana: Yeah the "30 seconds on me" was pretty hard on me, too. Especially because you get trained with a lot of people, not just the people from YFYI but also those from the other programs. You get trained with them. So it was a full house, it was really packed up. I was really shy, it was really bad.
Ashley: Yeah. They get hired in cohorts and then everyone from all the programs will train together. There's two phases. So in phase they all train together and then phase two they break off into their programs and then the training will be based on that specific program. So Phase 1 is all the basic skills that Adriana was talking about. And then in Phase 2 for example we do a training on like, what is philanthropy? How does it relate to social justice? How to do e-mail etiquette, things like that, more specific to the things that you'll need in the program.
One of the first things is, what does it mean to be a philanthropist? Now you can go home and tell your moms or tell your partner, "What's up, I'm a philanthropist!" Just explaining that is a training in and of itself because it's not what you learn about or are exposed to growing up low-income in the city.
Ashley: Now we want to talk a little bit about our impact, specifically on young people that we work with, and then also in the community.
Adriana: So a lot of our alumni have gone many different ways. One of them is a graphic designer now and she's now working with our program, YFYI, and she's creating our new logo. We need one because ours is hella old!
Ashley: The one that we included in the PowerPoint is new. So you guys have seen it before anybody - you guys are special. But she's also doing our Web site.
Adriana: Yeah and that should be done soon. Our previous coordinator, before Ashley, she moved to New York to pursue her Ph.D. which is really exciting because it's New York and she's continuing her education ...
Ashley: And when I first met her when I was 16, she had just started taking classes at City College because she had dropped out when she was younger. So she would tell me what it was like going back to college and then she went from City College and transferred to a private school, Mills College in Oakland. And then now went straight for a Ph.D. Like, she's a boss. Just like that, she moved to New York. So just the impact of that, of seeing somebody's experience with education has definitely influenced mine too. She would talk to me about GED class and things like that, things that I had never been exposed to or knew about.
Adriana: And then there's another one who as a youth used to work here. He's now business owner and he has this on your sandwich shop. Each year we have a youth conference and I think two years ago he was the one who provided lunches. He gave us the whole lunch for free ... and those sandwiches were pretty good. So those are examples of former staff giving back to where they came from to the community.
YFYI definitely impacts youth in terms of education. To be honest, I really came in with that mindset "I'm not going to college."
Ashley: I remember!
Adriana: I used to say, "college isn't for everybody." I've been here for four years, my whole high school career. And over the years I have actually changed my mind and I'm over here applying to colleges and actually hoping to get into one! [Being part of YFYI] has changed a lot of my perspectives about education.
Ashley: A lot of the youth that we work with are first generation college students. I was first generation.
Adriana: I'm going to be the first generation.
Ashley: The two ladies over here are first generation. And we have right here - don't think you can see them - they're educational goals and they have little check boxes and they're supposed to check them off in a couple of months. Things like raising my GPA, applying to 3 colleges ... and then I have stuff for myself too that I need to revisit, like creating a personal statement for grad school, choosing three grad schools ... so like I'm there with them too.
Then in terms of community impact, YFYI has given a lot of seed money to projects for them to start and they have become organizations. For example, the project that I mentioned earlier, Project WHAT, the first grant they ever got was from us and now they are a huge organization. They're based in San Francisco and also do a lot of work in Oakland.
And that's been the same for another project named Project Level - we don't tell them to call themselves project-something, that's just their personal choice. But Project Level too applied first to us and then they're like a huge organization and we still support them. So that shows the impact that even a small five thousand dollar grant can have, how it can have long term sustainable change.
And YFYI, since we're kind of like the O.G.s in the field, we have influenced some projects to start doing their own philanthropy in San Francisco. There are two others now and we collaborate so we have our own little hub and we bring all the youth together. But we like to say that we've had a positive influence on how youth philanthropy has been shaped in San Francisco.
We've also impacted, individually, some of the youth leaders from projects that have gotten involved in activism or things like that. For example, there was one time I was on my way to this protest on BART [SF subway] and I ran into a girl I recognized from YFYI and we ended up going to the protest together. She was like 5 years younger than me.
And I ended up actually seeing her, too, when I was in college I would see her. And she was very involved in college activism, too. She was involved in some justice coalition on campus. So we definitely feel like we have a big influence and impact on our community.
Ashley: And then in terms of like making sure there's young people at the table or are making sure that young people are showing up. Because you can have a really tight program and if young people are not feeling it, they won't be there. Part of that is like the culture of the organization, of the program. But there are a couple other things that we do. Sometimes for youth who go to local high schools in San Francisco, we offer free transportation, a Clipper Card or monthly bus passes.
And then we try our best to have open conversations, making sure that we meet youth where they're at in life, without any judgment. We also integrate restorative practices versus punitive practices. For example, back in the day when I got hired, we used to have a really strict attendance policy where you couldn't miss trainings and things like that, so we've moved away from that. Away from, your punished, you're no longer allowed to receive services because of your attendance. To, what can we do to make sure that you still learn the material that you missed but also holding you accountable so that you are job-ready and are making sure that you're on time and not missing. But the same applies to life.
Say there was a fight, within youth in the program, we try to squash the beef in a restorative way that leaves room for growth or healing and doesn't increase the chances of them catching a case or being more system involved.
And at CHALK we offer career coaching and case management. So every single youth that goes through the program meets monthly with a career coach that will help them develop goals for whatever it is that they want to do or offer like internship opportunities.
Adriana: Yeah, my case manager, she helped me get into this animal shelter where I'm going to start volunteering next month. She has been very helpful with that and with driver's licenses, getting permits, getting my California ID through here or I would have probably never done it. Small but very helpful stuff that you need in the long run. They're really helpful.
Ashley: Or even things like getting letters for court or reference letters or recommendation letters for colleges.
Ashley: We try to really become allies with teachers. A lot of the youth that we work with don't have the most positive experiences in school so they need a team and we become that team for them.
And the last thing is food, you always have to have food.
Adriana: To keep youth entertained? Yeah! We're always hungry.
Ashley: Yes! So before any workshop, any training, for our funding meetings ...
Adriana: We be eating good!
Ashley: Yeah we eat very good because the meetings are very long. So we let them choose Thai food or super duper Chinese, or ... we go crazy. It's definitely a good motivator that will ensure that the youth are present. It's also a trauma-informed practice. Some young people don't have money to get food or you don't know if they ate that night or that morning. So it's good practice to make sure that they're fed and have energy to listen and things like that.
Adriana: And also make sure they know that those services are provided for them because that's also motivational. If you just tell them that there's a career coach or a case manager, they'll say, OK, we have counselors at school. You should tell them what you actually offer, what you can help them do.
Ashley: And do a warm handoff, an introduction, you know, sometimes trust needs to be built before they can develop a relationship with somebody.
Adriana: This picture is the trip we took last year, not so long ago.
Ashley: Want to tell them where it was at?
Adriana: That's at Harvard University, it was really exciting.
Ashley: It looked like Hogwarts!
Adriana: Yeah it did! It's just changed my mind about college. I wanted to stay local, I would say City College, SF state. But then going to Boston and seeing all the rest of the colleges and the different communities got me even more excited about applying.
EmbraceRace: That was great! Thank you! And I wonder actually since we're going to have a tip sheet that you have prepared and we're going to make that available, I wonder if we can get in a few questions right now.
We got some questions when folks registered so let me ask one. You mentioned that your youth funders - you call them opportunity-youth rather than at-risk youth, but they are facing challenges. Right? You mentioned low socioeconomic status and various sorts of difficulties. How do they get into the program though? Do you recruit them or do they find out about the program and apply?
Ashley: CHALK has an outreach team that's led by youth so they're out distributing our application in places where young people would be. So schools, organizations, we give them to P.O.s - probation officers - anywhere. So they're recruited through other young people. We also do a lot of social media marketing and things like that. How did you find out about it?
Adriana: I was in this program in City College on Third, and that program paid me $200 a month. And we would literally just sit there and be in silence. They would say they were teaching us stuff but we were literally in a classroom just sitting there, not doing anything, just watching videos. They called it job readiness it wasn't really helping much. Well at least not to me.
But then one day, they gave me the YFYI application. I honestly didn't really know much about YFYI but I wanted to get out of there and find an actual job. I was 13 or 14.
Ashley: Yeah, I was in your interview.
Adriana: Yep. She interviewed me. I just filled it in without thinking I was going to get in or even getting called back. And then I turned in the application and got called in for an interview. And she interviewed me and I remember wearing ripped jeans, I was just hella ghetto, like crop top and everything.
Ashley: Nah, you looked cute.
Adriana: I felt like I looked bad for a job interview. They interviewed us in groups.
Ashley: CHALK does the recruitment. Other organizations help too, spreading the word. Like, I heard about CHALK and received the application through my best friend's mom. She was like, you should apply. And I was looking to work because there was a lot of stuff going on at home, I wanted to support my mom and things like that. But the interviews are led by young people so it's usually one adult ally and two to three youth interviewing and then we interview youth in groups. So it'll be like three interviewers - say me and Adriana and another youth from YFYI. And then the number of interviewees will be three or five.
EmbraceRace: I'm wondering, too, some more about the effects on the two of you personally. So you mentioned education in general. There's a big educational impact. Adriana, you said that you weren't thinking about college and now you're looking to apply. And Ashley you said that you are both first generation college goers for your families. And now, Ashley, you want to apply to grad school. Could you say some more about the impact for you in your home life with your families, how your parents or guardians - your people, whoever those are - how they see that? I'm just wondering about what the effect of this is outside of the organizational work context.
Ashley: Well, when I first started I never felt like I didn't have a voice because I didn't even know that was a thing, youth voice. I was just passing through kind of floating. And then when I found CHALK, it definitely sparked activism and being more aware of things and being critical of what's happening around me, questioning things, being woke. And that helped me a lot through college. I was going to drop out of college and didn't even fill out FASFA, I thought, I'm not going to go. And it wasn't until I was at a family gathering and my uncles were like, "How's college?" and I was like, "It's great! It's going so good!" and then I decided that I need to be about the stuff that I tell the young people I work with to do. So CHALK helped me a lot.
In terms of home, my mom is very proud of the work that I do. She doesn't really know what philanthropy is. So she just says that I'm a social worker or a teacher [when explaining] to my family members. But it's definitely helped me be more or less self-sufficient. I'm 23. I have my own place, my own studio, I graduated - like none of that would have been possible without the support that I received from CHALK, especially in a city like San Francisco where housing is so difficult.
EmbraceRace: So we got a question about how adults can be better better allies with young people, with youth? And relatedly - I'm so in awe of what you guys are saying and how poised and mature you are at such young ages, but I fear that by saying so I'm committing adultism. So if you could answer both the question, how can adults be more supportive of youth or be allies, and, relatedly, what is adultism?
Ashley: It's something that you're always going to encounter as a young person. I will still feel it even at CHALK. But the line is drawn the moment that adults are willing to be like, "Oh you're right I made a mistake. I should be held accountable, too." Or things like that. Like there's still ways that you can be oppressive to a young person without realizing. Saying, "You should do this, you should do that." Instead of, "Hey, do you mind helping me with this project? Are you interested in doing this?" Or even for this webinar, like "Adriana, do you agree with everything that we're about to talk about, how do you feel about it, do you want to change anything? We can change anything." Being a leader but then also being ok with learning from young people, too.
For example, we recently had a project where we had to prepare for this retreat that I was going to be a part of and not the youth, but they helped me with all of it. They developed a script for the video. They did i-movie and I had to completely step back and I'm kind of OCD, a little bit. I like to know that things are going very well so I'm always learning from them. Yeah.
EmbraceRace: What's the biggest single piece of advice you'd give to someone who wants to take the voices of young people seriously in his or her work? And this is the question we received. What's the single biggest thing?
Adriana: Get to know them! Because if you know what they've been through and you know how they think. And you ask them for their opinion. And obviously you should take them seriously. Getting to know them is a big part. Just have a conversation with them. Be nice. Don't just be bossing around, have a conversation with them, get to know them.
Ashley: I was going to say the same thing. We put relationship building last but it really should be first. I could name how many siblings they have, almost what middle school they went to, what's happened the last couple of days, weeks or things like that. We check in regularly and we have a really good relationship that's built on trust. Obviously there's still boundaries and things like that. But yeah I say relationship building.
EmbraceRace: And Ashley, let me ask you a follow up because you mentioned earlier several contexts in which you, as the adult supervisor, really step back and let the young people who you're working with step up. Course you're a pretty young person yourself. But you also mention that you know you really like things to go well. So how do you personally balance that? You know if you are in a meeting where the young people are arguing for the projects they want to fund and you think that they may be coming into a really bad decision. Do you always stay out, no matter what, at that point, or do you sometimes step in?
Ashley: Well we have community agreements whenever we do stuff like that. So in the community agreements there are ways we can check each other in respectful ways. So things like: "Throw glitter, not shade." Or make sure you're "rigorous on the idea not the person."
So if something does happen where I see young people may be taking it too far, then I would refer back to the community agreements. Like, oh number four, be rigorous on the new not the person. But I think we've reached a level of comfort where they can tell me, "You're doing too much Ashley, like you're being a little extra. You need to tone it down . " I've had them tell me stuff like that, too, in loving ways. Or I'll even say, "If I'm doing too much let me know because I be doing too much sometimes!"
EmbraceRace: Before we go, I'm wondering in this current climate where, in the news anyway, there's a lot about youth empowerment in this moment [students from Parkland, Florida school getting a lot of attention for their gun control activism post school shooting]. We had planned to talk to you before this all happened, but wondering, because we've gotten those questions as well, about anything that you guys fund that deals with making youth more safe, and especially at school?
Adriana: Yeah, there's this project that applied to YFYI and they do theater in front of their school about how to deal with bullying and the resources that the school has, how there's always someone you can talk to, and how to stand up to bullying, to be an ally.
Ashley: We've had projects that address the school to prison pipeline. I don't know if a lot of folks have heard about that? Actually Project WHAT, the one that we talked about, they had one specific project that they applied for that focused on that, just letting people know what the school to prison pipeline was, and that was the first time I heard about it, was from a project. But as far as what's recently happened, or what has been happening for a long time in schools, more specifically related to gun control and things like that, we haven't received any projects related to that, but we are open to it. And whenever we do workshops we let people know they should apply for whatever it is that you feel is needed in your community. If that's your school, your neighborhood, your after school program, like whatever it is.
EmbraceRace: Well you know that we're pulling for you hard on the education front. Adriana, I know you said college and you want to be a vet, yes?
EmbraceRace: And, Ashley, what kind of grad school are you thinking about?
Ashley: I'm thinking urban education and I also want to somehow incorporate abuelita medicine, ancestral medicine and then trauma - like how young people can be traumatized in schools and how curriculum can be decolonized. It's a lot of stuff that I'm working with. One day it's going to align. I don't know when but I know that it will.
EmbraceRace: We love those things. You two are really inspiring. Thank you so much.