The Kids are Alright: A call to connect with youth
May 15, 2020
When I left a meeting with the Youth Leadership Greater Washington program on March 6th, I knew I left inspired and convinced that the future was held in thoughtful, smart and kind hands. A note I wrote to the marvelous LGW staff as a follow-up said, “I sleep better tonight because I know that leaders like that are waiting for their shot.” If you haven’t had a chance to get to know any of these young people, don’t delay in finding a way. Trust me. They are incredible and you will want them in your organization, company or dinner table as the world evolves.
What I didn’t realize then is that my time with these young people would be cemented as one of my last meetings in BC (Before COVID) Time. Since then, the world changed in ways unimaginable. However, their advice serves as a blueprint for how to make my way through physical distancing as a parent, as a business owner, as a community member. You see, as I got a sense of the “room” (remember when we were in rooms?), I ditched part of my agenda because I wanted to hear from them, desperately. It was clear they have their eyes on us and the future. I didn’t want to miss such raw and powerful insights.
So, I asked three questions:
- As a small business owner, what advice would you give me?
- As a parent, what advice would you give me?
- What books should I be paying attention to?
What follows are highlights of the generous advice they offered to me. I’m honored to amplify their words and pass it along to you. May it give you hope as you see the wisdom already present in tomorrow’s leaders as well as practical actions to make your way through AC (After COVID) Time.
“Let young people have a role in 20 Degrees.” This one hit me hard. It makes a lot of sense: how can our company talk about innovative ways to create and pay for change if I’m not open to also bringing along young talent to shape that change?
The lesson here: we can’t let our internship programs die because of COVID. Unfortunately, countless opportunities have already been cancelled. These positions provide hope, income (hopefully) and formation of tomorrow’s workforce pipeline. We business leaders have to find ways to keep our young people engaged. Let’s commit to finding projects and positions, especially in times like this, that create meaningful and ongoing engagement. Offer pay, whatever you can. I am sure we won’t regret it and I’m convinced our future depends on it.
I’m proud to say that 20 Degrees is prioritizing the hiring of interns and we look forward to their contributions this summer.
“Create an open relationship. Check in. Have conversations about deep things. Let her be independent.” The parenting advice was simple, yet profound. If I had known that within a week, I would be both mom, full-time cook and part-time 4th grade teacher (shared with my husband), I might have asked more follow-up questions.
They also offered practical advice, which certainly resonated in our household:
- “Share your favorite activity, but don’t live through them.” It's a knife’s edge, but as a parent, I’ve got to find it. My daughter shares my love of cooking, but I’m making little headway on polka dancing. Oh well.
- “Just because they are 10 doesn’t mean they don’t know what they want.” Right. We all demand agency and to be seen. It's easy for me to slip into the “you will change your mind” trope as a parent when negotiating how I think time after dinner should be spent or how I might focus some of her summer. What a reminder to see my young daughter as someone who does know exactly what she wants.
- “It’s not just a phase.” This felt dead serious when it was offered. It is easy as a parent to view things as something that will pass but that feels like the fastest route to creating disconnection. And if ever there is a time when we can’t have disconnection, it is now. The stakes are too high.
The major takeaway from the parenting advice: let your child be themselves. Support, love and stay alongside your child, whoever they are, however they are, without judgement. I also think there are plenty of ways for people to engage with other people’s children. No child is raised only by their parents.
“The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.” If you ask me, YA books are perfect for the moment. The genre offers dramatic plots, compelling characters as well as totally relevant and engrossing content. Importantly, it offers us ‘older’ adults a window into what it’s like to be a young person in this era.
Here is a snapshot from the full list of recommendations:
- I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones
- The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
- The Poet X by Elizabeth Ecevedo
- Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
- Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson
For the record, I heard a few familiar titles, too, like The Devil Wears Prada, Born a Crime, Little Women, A Thousand Splendid Suns and, of course, Becoming.
Our young people are growing up hard - even those with enough social capital to find their way into a program like LGW as a teenager. A pandemic in your teenage years seems especially cruel or perhaps it’s just one more thing we adults asked them to process in their formative years.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage communities, especially communities of color, our failures to address structural inequities are creating further debts to be paid to our young people. Even before the pandemic arrived, we weren’t exactly creating a world or communities in which their futures were secure, let alone knowable. We must take this moment to do right by their futures.
But know this: from what I saw, the leaders in the Youth Leadership Greater Washington Program will make tremendous leaders in time. And they are still learning. Let’s not forget to keep teaching them and let’s not forget to let them keep teaching us.
I’ve found I need to be intentional about making sure physical distancing doesn’t become the reason I accidentally become disconnected from communities I care deeply about. Our neighbors and especially our kids depend on us not taking the easy way out.
I challenge those of us in the Leadership Greater Washington community to push through this moment to seek out and search for connection. I know we are all tired. And overwhelmed. And unsure of our own futures. And yet. Just as we’ve found ways to have memorable Member Dinners, to reach out to classmates and to tackle policy and business issues, let’s commit to taking our young people along with us. I know in my bones that these young people who are literally in our LGW community already are indicators of a future that will be healthier, stronger and more deeply connected.
We need the energy, perspective and hope young people bring naturally. Let’s not let COVID-19 take any more than it already has from their future or ours. We will all be better for it.
Sara Gibson is a member of the Class of 2015 #EnoughSaid and the Co-Founder & CEO of 20 Degrees, a firm committed to helping nonprofits and social enterprises unlock revenue for social change.