Empowering Youth: Efforts That Last a Lifetime
by Akello Stone
Facilitating ‘empowerment’ as a skill set for self-actualization is no easy task. In fact, when you use that word it sounds like something right off of the Dr. Phil show! Much like teaching someone to fish so that they can eat for the remainder of their lives, empowerment influences and stimulates people to think and behave in ways that impact personal growth, healthy relationships and an optimistic perspective of the world. Who wouldn’t want that as a way of living?
The Summer Empowerment Academy (SEA), soon to enter it’s fifth year of programming, emerged from the Manifest Your Destiny Foundation as a mechanism for “actualizing” the ideas, philosophies and strategies detailed in Hill Harper’s two books aimed at youth, Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny and Letters to a Young Sister: DeFINE your Destiny. These books became national best sellers, reaching tens of thousands of readers, and influencing youth across the nation and abroad in positive ways.
Capitalizing on this momentum, the SEA became a mechanism for infusing that power actively through real-life interactions between youth and young adults who serve as “mentors.” These mentors are both experienced in the ways of the world and many additionally serve as content experts in a variety of fields that bring knowledge and role model behaviors that will move participants along a trajectory of success – beginning with their ninth grade year. The mentors go through extensive training as many have strong desire to ‘give back’ but lack the specific experience and/or skills sets to accomplish this in a systematic and highly supportive way.
The SEA is a week long program, a full 40 HOURS – that builds and strengthens the participants of each year’s cohort into self-supportive, cohesive group who have the determination and optimism to elevate their approach and strategies in all areas of their lives – academic, personal and professional. During the Fall and Spring following the MYDF holds monthly “Saturday Empowerment Academies” to reinforce the lessons learned and experiences gained during the summer.
MYDF boasts itself as not only providing positive experiences for its participants, but additionally helps to build mentors who will move forward with those skill sets and experiences throughout the course of their lives. What has been created is both a youth development model as well as an incubator for young adult mentors in the spirit of volunteerism. Through these deliberate strategies, we are perpetuating a cycle of philanthropy that has even greater reach than serving youth alone.
As with the birth of any new initiative, initial conversations were had to determine just how this program would differ from other leadership/motivational/educational programs aimed at youth that are currently out there, and many which have existed for years, and even decades. What struck the “core team” of developers was the importance of taking a “holistic” approach to empowering youth to construct a future that is of their own creation, despite the many obstacles they may encounter along the way. It is this blueprint that the MYDF program seeks to create with its youth participants.
I like the word “transformation.” There is something very dynamic and kinetic about the word. Some definitions of this word even include the concept of metamorphosis, which always makes me think of the slow moving caterpillar eventually emerging out of the cocoon into a free flying butterfly. While we human beings do not have cocoons we are all in a state of constant change and metamorphosis of our own.
MYDF infuses challenging environments with a hands-on approach to self-discovery, learning and perspective changing into its programming model. Incorporating high expectations about moving out of the comfort zone of stagnation and Compassionate mentors who seek the opportunities to give back and appreciate direction and guidance in this endeavor..
MYDF believes in forming strong partnerships with organizations whose values are congruent with its own. Fulcrum Adventures in Culver City, California is the site for the annual “Team Building Ropes Course.” It is on the first day during the afternoon of the first day of SEA that we engage the participants in this activity. Through the ropes course, the participants are challenged to:
This experience galvanizes the group and alleviates the distance that we often feel from one another because of social discomfort and self-doubt. This is just the one of a plethora of transformational strategies we use with the youth, “ states Akello Stone, MYDF Board Member and SEA Co-Founder. “Our mentors actively support these processes through quality interactions with the program participants.” Mentoring is widely utilized as a means of guidance and inspiration and can be highly effective in a variety of situations. Mentors volunteer their time so you know that they truly and authentically care.
“My mentoring experiences have allowed me to share my life lessons and help youth to begin to discover their path in life. This opportunity has enriched my personal growth” stated mentor Tatiana Williams, who has worked continually with the youth from SEA Cohort 4. She adds, “There is something magical that happens when you watch the transformation of a young person before your eyes. Something clicks within them and they realize that they hold the power to make positive changes within themselves. They realize that their story is worthy of being told. I am just there to remind them of their greatness, when they have moments of doubt.”
Chi Burton, mentor, further defines the role of mentors in this process,” mentors foster transformational experiences by being role models and building positive relationships through open communication and ongoing encouragement.” MYDF believes that not only do youth participants benefit from the transformative powers of but the young adult mentors do as well, which is deeply rooted in the Foundation’s mission. Strong mentorship is developed through intensive training, high standards of conduct and role modeling, and continual dialogue about how to best play the role and facilitate active change.
The “fruits of this labor” are not always seen within a short frame of time and those involved must realize this. “I see myself in these young people and, as such, I feel a strong sense of accountability to open their minds to opportunities that will eventually present themselves,” expressed Vince Allen, mentor. The greatest reward is knowing that some day, even 10-20 years from now, a word, an ear, and nuggets of wisdom will eventually flourish and the efforts of today will have made all the difference in the future.