“Don’t underestimate the power of our young people. We need to do everything we can to build them up and provide them with resources and tools that they need to be catalysts for change. That's what they want to do, but they need adult allies to get there.”
If you are a young person from a neighborhood that has limited reach and resources, you often don’t see anything past your immediate environment. You’re disenfranchised and you know there are challenges in your community, but you may not realize young people around the world are experiencing the same challenges.
While the Community Enrichment Project (CEP) is primarily a youth civic engagement and empowerment organization in wards 7 and 8, during the pandemic we made connections with young activists around the world. We work with youth to create local change but who don’t have the resources and tools, and we provide mentorship and opportunities for them to express their voices. Our tools have helped young people in the District and in other countries grow their power, and those relationships helped young people here see the difference that their voices can make on a global scale.
For example, food insecurity is an issue that far too many communities have in common, which inspired CEP’s young people to host our 2021 International Youth Day Conference on the theme Global Youth Dialogue on Transforming Food Systems. Panelists included activists from Singapore, Australia, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Greece, as well as the United States. Episodes of Youth Voices Amplified, CEP’s youth-led podcast, cover topics such as mental health, police in schools, college readiness, and female genital mutilation, and feature CEP’s Global Youth Ambassadors from the District and around the world. Everything we do is about celebrating youth voices and helping youth move from voice to action.
Don’t underestimate the power of our young people. We need to do everything we can to build them up and provide them with resources and tools that they need to be catalysts for change. That's what they want to do, but they need adult allies to get there.
Flexibility is fundamental but not necessarily easy
Before the pandemic, everything CEP did was in person, in our community. Then we had to move to being completely virtual, which had its own challenges but is what led to our young people cultivating relationships with their peers around the world. Now we are back to in person activities, but we are cognizant that the virtual world is here to stay. Young people want and expect flexibility, so moving forward our curriculum will support in person, virtual, and hybrid. If we’re here to serve youth and be youth centered, we have to offer what they need.
One challenge we’re facing now is working back up to where we were pre-COVID in terms of staffing and the number of youth we’re serving. During the pandemic, we didn’t need as many staff because of virtual programming, and we had to let staff go. At the same time, we were still serving our community and had to find funding for online curricula, licensing, cyber liability insurance, and other requirements for operating virtually. We had to make sure our young people were safe in that environment. When DCPS returned to in-person learning, we had to increase our staff and now we need to work to retain them, even when the future is uncertain.
Recognizing Increasing Needs and Meeting Them
What’s also evolved because of the pandemic is our emphasis on meeting the emotional needs of our young people. Our teens have been very open about the fact that they need more mental health support. This is a new day and age and they’re not afraid to talk about it. During the pandemic, young people weren’t getting the social interaction with their friends and trusted staff at their schools that they needed. They felt like they were let down by their schools and didn’t feel supported. A lot of them look at school as an outlet, but they didn’t have that anymore. We worked hard to provide the continuity of connections with our staff. OST programs meant the world to them because we’re the ones that showed up and stuck with them and will continue to do it no matter what happens. We’re not going anywhere. We have definitely brought on more staff and created partnerships to provide social-emotional support. There are counselors in the schools, but often they aren’t making connections with students.
At the same time, there was a major economic impact on young people, which was directly tied to the emotional impact. Some of the young people and some of their parents were no longer able to work, or were working fewer hours. Pre-pandemic, young people may have been working after school or on weekends, but suddenly they had to take care of younger siblings or older family members. Often they had to help their siblings do virtual school while trying to do their own virtual learning. They were playing a lot of roles. We provided a mental break by inviting them to play games together online, or just listen to music, so they could let go of their responsibilities to others and just be themselves.
CEP also partnered with food distribution and other community organizations to provide hundreds of meals every month to our families, as well as groceries, and books and toys at Christmas. We supported youth with educational technology needs, like headsets, computers, and more. DCPS provided some items but the rollout wasn’t always smooth and sometimes things break, so we stepped in to help.
Ultimately our focus remains on enabling youth to find and raise their voices about issues they care about. Two ways we’re accomplishing that this year are through our Digital Media Internship and our Acceleration Project. The Digital Media Internship, supported by the DC Summer Youth Employment Program, will help young people ages 14-24 develop skills they’re already using in their personal lives for their professional lives in a global world. They will learn about photography, videography, journalism, social media, blogging, marketing and advertising, and graphic design and use these skills and platforms to create action campaigns. The Acceleration Project is a 10-week paid advocacy internship that will culminate in a major community service project. And we will continue our work with young people through their schools and in the community to help them channel their lived experiences and their wisdom into civic engagement that can change the world.