Youth Making History at Home

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”Our youth are not failing the system; the system is failing
our youth. Ironically, the very youth who are being
treated the worst are the young people who are going to
lead us out of this nightmare.”—Rachel Jackson
The Peer Ambassadors is currently a program at the Mental
Health Center of Champaign County and are funded by
a grant through the Champaign County Mental Health
Board. The Peer Ambassadors are the youth voice for Project
They are a group of African American teens, trying to
make a difference in their community by helping other
teens, challenging themselves, and transforming their
communities. They ‘represent’ and help people understand
that anything is possible if you just believe and work
hard. Many of them are youth who were once ‘written off,’
who are now mobilized to change and transform themselves
and their communities.
This preceding paragraph is comprised of phrases that
individual Peer Ambassadors have created to describe
themselves and their role within this community. For the
past three years I have had the privilege of working with a
remarkable group of passionate young people who, by the
time the leave the program, are committed to transforming
themselves and their communities. The program, staff,
and the other participants work hard to create an environment
that gives the participants a sense of their own power
and see themselves as agents as of change.
Three years ago the group was formed and the program
was developed to address several challenges facing youth,
especially African American youth, in our community.
First, there was a perception that there were two few
opportunities for youth to become involved constructively
in transforming their communities. Then there was also a
perception that African American youth were not viewed
as a resource in this community. And finally, from my perception,
too many African American youth were being
marginalized and were disconnected from their communities
and their possibilities.
So, in May 2006 a meeting was called and parents,
social workers, and other people from the community
referred 15 youth from the community who had some previous
‘issues’ at home, at school, and in the community but
who had leadership experiences and the desire to make a
difference. From that initial class of 15 the Peer Ambassadors
were born. They committed themselves to improving
their schools, their bodies, and themselves. They also
were committed to bringing their friends and family members
along. They hosted town hall meetings about what
youth need, about strategies to improve police and youth
relationships, and identifying ways to improve our schools.
They were given permission to conduct monthly focus
groups at the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) to find out
what youth want and need in our community that would
have a deterrent effect. This information has been shared
locally and nationally at conferences and with key decision
makers like the Mental Health Board of Champaign County.
They also hold monthly meetings designed to give their
peers and other youth in our communities opportunities to
come to a youth led space, where they can learn, self organize,
and grow. Remember Kofi Annan said, “Young people
should be at the forefront of global change and innovation.
Empowered, they can be key agents for development and
peace. If, however, they are left on society’s margins, all of
us will be impoverished. Let us ensure that all young people
have every opportunity to participate fully in the lives
of their societies.” This is the vision of the Peer Ambassadors
Recently, in response to input received from youth in
our focus groups at the JDC and our Youth Summit
schools, the focus has been on schools, employment, and
family. They want schools that are challenging, equitable,
and that prepare them for success. They also want employment
opportunities to help them stay focused, take care of
their economic needs, and prepare them for their future
career aspirations. And they want their families to have the
resources and the skills they need. Our challenge is to find
partners in the community who share their vision and who
are really open to hearing from youth to working to
address the needs of youth. Unfortunately, the Peer
Ambassadors have found that people outside of this community
often have been much more responsive to them
and more open to their voice than leaders and stakeholders
in this community.
We are aware that all too often many of the adults in
this community have a colored lens that impedes their
ability to see the youth in the Peer Ambassadors and other
youth (and their families) as experts in their own lives. Too
frequently, age and cultural bias color their lens through
which they see young people in the program. In an era of
ever tightening budget restrictions and other challenges it’s
easier for funders, administrators, educators, and program
developers to move back to a top down/patriarchal
approach rather than open themselves to the creative
genius that lies in all of our youth.
However the Peer Ambassadors never lose hope that
they can harness the energies and passions of our community.
They are looking for adults who can work with them
here at home because we are aware ‘that all politics are
local;’ but also they are aware that adults have power. Currently,
they are launching two campaigns designed to
mobilize adults to get involved in the lives of the youth in
our community. The first is Save our Students (S.O.S.), an
ongoing initiative designed to ensure that student voices
(especially the African American student voices) are heard
in designing and improving the climate and quality of
their educational experiences. They want a sense of ownership
of their schools. The meeting will be on Wednesday,
February 11, at 5:30 at the CUPHD.
They are also launching a youth spotlight campaign
that will showcase the successes of one youth in our community
everyday during Black History month. If you want
to get involved with the Peer Ambassadors or want to learn
more about their work please feel free to contact them at

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