Follow Their Lead: A Year of Teen Leadership

by Madeline Taylor & Kimberly Faith Waid 

At our national staff retreat in 2019, our full-time staff came together to focus on teen leadership and the ways we could empower our young writers within our community and beyond. We’d run programs in the past, and we were ready to take it to a new level: to guide writers to contribute their ideas, help produce events, and be the voice of the messaging that, after all, defines their passions. Our discussion centered primarily around the needs of our teen community; many of our teens had been involved in Writopia for many years and were ready for a new experience, in the midst of a world full of new challenges. We wanted to center our programs around our young writers’ passions and ideas so that we could provide the scaffolding and tools while allowing them the freedom to express their creativity in new, impactful ways.

Writopia Lab at Pride 2019

Our Enviroactivism club began after a teen entered the workshop space devastated by the impact of climate change and that conversation drew compassion and concern for the room at large. It became clear that this was a conversation these teens would like to be having but also a concern they were motivated to pursue actionable change to achieve. The group is student-led, instructor-mentored, and aims to empower kids and teens to use their voice to become leaders and environmental activists in their own neighborhoods. Originally bi-weekly meetings, the structure expanded to a monthly event series. In the past year, participants have brainstormed advocacy efforts to raise awareness around climate change, written thank you letters to firefighters and advocates, written urgent letters to representatives and corporate social responsibility managers, and engaged in the replies! They’ve probed outside of typical “environmental stresses” and explored urban planning and housing for the homeless with a guest speaker who educated them on the intersection of public health and sustainability. These topics informed them as citizens who will care for the health of any city they inhabit. Local participation and advocacy is vital and how wonderful that it was born from their creative writing workshop where they can tackle words and ideas without censorship but rather with wholehearted empathy and cultural consciousness. 

One of the best things about teen leadership is watching it grow and evolve as the teens themselves grow up from passionate youth into smart, strong, well-equipped young adults. A favorite example is the way that Writopia’s LGBTQ+ community has flourished thanks to teen leaders who committed to forging a space not just for themselves, but for their whole Writopia family. During the summer of 2017 at WriCampia (our sleepaway camp), we started Plus, a discussion/writing/hangout space for LGBTQ+ campers and anyone who wanted to have a place to learn more about gender and sexuality in a friendly, low-key environment. Over the next several years, we grew beyond WriCampia and into our school-year programming as well. For Pride 2019, a particularly significant year that marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we ran three different programs to reach more young writers than ever. From a queer movie night with poster-making, to an art and writing field trip at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, to the NYC Pride March itself, Writopia teens created powerful, fun, thoughtful spaces. 

As we reflected on our queer community’s evolution and the growth of our Enviroactivism group, we saw that in order to truly serve our kids, our role as educators must be to teach kids the toolkit they need to empower themselves; it’s incredible to watch how these empowered and equipped kids can take those tools to lift the needs of others as well.

A year after our initial conversations, when we gathered for our 2020 staff retreat, we had presentations prepared on the teen engagement programs we had started over the past year. Our retreat, however, turned into a huge planning session for Writopia Lab’s transition to online programming, which had to happen fast, as more cities started shelter-in-place orders. A few weeks later, once we had moved workshops on to Zoom and were getting in the groove of this strange time, we had a moment to stop and remember our teen leaders. Our next challenge: how could we continue to support our teen leaders and activists via online channels? How would Covid-19 affect these kids’ goals and plans?

It didn’t come as any surprise when we realized that these young leaders had continued their projects and started new, timely projects, all through their determination and hard work. Turning the Page, a group dedicated to writing about and destigmatizing mental health issues, has continued to meet every weekend; they are creating an anthology as well as sharing ideas for mental health support on their Instagram. The Next Chapter, a teen-led gun control advocacy group, continued to meet once a week to discuss future projects, including their involvement with the “Enough” plays project. They’re also accepting submissions for a zine about gun violence. Diatom, our new teen-run literary magazine, took the initiative to write acceptance letters and start curating their new issue, outside of meetings led by Writopia Staff. In our debate club, our older teens who are nationally ranked debaters are working with us to develop a new debate culture and format that goes beyond argument and rebuttal and celebrates problem solving as well. Enviroactivism has met monthly to process the impact of the virus on issues they’d covered prior like housing and climate. They’ve collaborated on earth day social media posts, a recipe exchange of common pantry items, and they traveled the Earth while staying home this month thanks to a Zoom viewing party of Our Planet. Our kids had the tools they needed to maintain their activism even — especially — during the most challenging time many of them have ever faced.

Covid-19 showed us clearly that the future of youth activism programs is dependent on our efforts as instructors and mentors to be alert to the questions of young people, reminding them that their voice is needed and deserves to be heard. In a time when young people are feeling weighed down by anxieties about the future, it’s vital that we foster literacy through creating spaces for writers to engage with their ideas, beliefs, and passions beyond the written page. Collectively, all of these programs will bring confidence and deep awareness to our young writers. Now is the time to hear and celebrate their passions, angers, and curiosities. Our present and our future will be filled with their voices.

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