Meet the Changemakers: What becomes possible when disenfranchised teens become authors of change for the better.

Posted by Katherine Donnelly Goehring on November 7, 2017 in Afterschool

When it comes to solving the world’s biggest problems, today’s cross-sector efforts are impressive. Right now, 194 nations are collaborating to get food and life-saving vaccines to remote parts of the world desperate for both.1

But in America – home to the world’s richest economy – quality education, healthcare, and safe streets still elude communities where Sheltering Arms young people live, learn, and play. Our Safe Space Youth Social Justice Corps channels their voices in promising—and surprising—ways.

The Youth Corps – originally started in response to our country’s rising social justice movements over the past three years – already demonstrates potential as a key lever in Sheltering Arms’ evolving grassroots community-building. Its members (ages 15-24) hail from an array of Sheltering Arms programs. Young as they are, life in disenfranchised communities renders them experts on some of the nation’s most compelling issues. They have felt hopeless about their futures; they have been kicked out of homes and schools; they have dropped out, and some already have faced incarceration. Meet the changemakers.

Change From the Inside, Out

In a recent Sheltering Arms survey of almost 100 youths, a stark 60 percent felt unequally treated by law enforcement. Many battled racial profiling, low/no access to housing, and a dearth of educational or job opportunities. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and intersexual youths feared being turned away from shelters and health clinics or being bullied at work. One young woman, newly a mom, worried about the fact that “programs stop at 24 or 25,” and “there is still so much I don’t know and need help with.” Those who had petitioned City Council hadn’t seen changes. Asked to define social justice, one youth wrote, “I don’t know what social justice is.”

The Corps convenes roughly 20 from that survey, all embarking on a journey from frustrated and skeptical, to intrigued and even hopeful. Staff members remark on youths’ consistent attendance at trainings in efforts to become policy-literate and learn positive, practical tactics for change.

“The trainings create a buzz,” Sheltering Arms Youth Coordinator, Marc Yves-Barosy, suggests. “So when youth walk through their neighborhoods and see problems, they think about how to correct them: ‘What about getting that streetlight fixed? What about joining that local Council? What Borough President can you talk to?’” Indeed, some youth travel an hour-and-a-half on multiple trains and buses to attend the trainings at Sheltering Arms’ Flagship New York City offices. Once there, they discover an array of options. That includes learning about volunteer opportunities to become more fluent in their neighborhoods’ needs (e.g., a Day of Service or in community gardens and food pantries).

The Corps’ first foray into the community – to encourage voter registration in Mott Haven and Queens – was eye-opening. Their “Activism 101” training had illuminated why registration matters in a country where a meager 36 percent of voters cast ballots in 20142. Excited and a little nervous, clipboards, pens, and voter registration forms in hand, they stood on street corners, in front of malls, and outside McDonald’s. To their surprise, “People didn’t want to talk to us. They think you’re trying to sell them something.” But passers-by did welcome the Corps’ informative flyers in English and Spanish, delineating who’s on the November 7 ballot and what they do (really, what is a Comptroller?). They’ll be out on Election Day.

How Training Works: A Snapshot

Anthony Posada is surrounded by soda, water, takeout Chinese food, and staff and Youth Corps members, as he launches into “Know Your Rights Training on Police Encounters.” A Legal Aid Society Public Defender, Mr. Posada also founded the non-profit, Project Attica, leveraging his own brand of “artivisim” – social justice-themed art activities that help underserved communities. Posada has been on the wrong side of “stop-and-frisk” himself, so his knowledge goes deep. But so does his belief in the transformative power of art.

“Raise your hand, if you know what your Miranda rights are,” he encourages. Hands spring up everywhere – and fast. “I think you have the right to not give them your name?” someone volunteers. “I got a question,” another member says. “Don’t you have the right to remain silent?” Posada captures their ideas on the board, as the room leans in to decode mystifying laws.

For the role-playing improv on positive interaction with law enforcement, he asks, “Who wants to be the criminal?” Again, hands spring up, as do a few enthusiastic participants. “Sit down and eat your eggroll!” one jovially teases.

After role-playing, Mr. Posada pivots: “I take my cue from you – what’s on your mind most?” A lot, it turns out, based on their responses: “I feel like I would be much better on community boards. It’s a much more personal thing.” “I really want to talk to the elected officials in my community.” “We’re preaching to the choir.” “We need to write this down.”

Amy Wilkerson, Director of Youth Services, reminds them, “As long as you guys want to do this, we’ll be there. One year, two years, whatever you need.” The reassuring commitment sparks plans to work with elected officials. One previously silent youth chimes in: “I really want to do that.” Another agrees, “One day I want to be one of those officials.”

For the whole two hours, real-time Instagrams capture an increasingly hopeful process: #socialjustice #youth #learning #savelives #education #shelteringarms #safe #roleplay #awareness #protective #learningtogether. Members huddle over a table even after the session has formally ended. They’re writing ideas in their phones and on flyers, as they trail down the hallway toward buses and trains.

What’s Up with the Future? Toward a New Story of Engagement

Beyond inspiring a cadre of social innovators, the Youth Social Justice Corps’ potential to cast unique alliances already is informing Sheltering Arms as it reshapes its values over the next five years. There also is hope members will inspire each other and perhaps even become community leaders. Their 2018 Action Plan includes community board meetings, raising awareness on the steps of City Hall, going to Albany for Advocacy Day, and more.

Samantha Curtin, Sheltering Arms’ South Bronx Coordinator, “would love to see them join those local community boards.” For her, it’s personal; she vividly remembers being the little kid whose mom brought her into the voting booth to let her pull the lever. If she could paint an artivism T-Shirt, hers would just say: “Be the Change.”

Assistant Program Director, Leonard Haughton, shares Ms. Curtin’s sentiment. He’s been standing on the room’s periphery all evening during “Know Your Rights,” marveling at “what is happening in these meetings. You don’t usually see this age group of males engaged on topics like this.”

What accounts for the difference? Mr. Haughton laughs: “I don’t know the answer to that one!” But he adds, “They attract each other’s attention. They’re turning into civic leaders rather than passive recipients. Maybe they see they can build a stronger community.”

The challenges are big and won’t likely end in a day, a week, or even a year. But in that time, these young changemakers may do more than capture local leaders’ attention; they may prove a salient point. Even when they’re not role-playing, they’re their own best role models.


[1] On September 25th 2015, 194 countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals—a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.

[2] According to the New York Times’ documentation of the National Elections Project: