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Investing in North Carolina’s Future

Students listen intently to a session on structural racism at the 2018 Program Orientation. From left: Matthew Atisa, Chapel Hill; Kayleen Amaya, Concord; Kayla Hensley, Pineville; Falon Thomas, peer mentor

This summer marks the 11th year of North Carolina Community Development Initiative’s comprehensive Summer Youth Leadership program. The Initiative launched the program to fill a void—providing meaningful youth leadership development programming that didn’t come with a four-figure price tag. Today, the program has reached more than 270 rising high school seniors from 47 counties, 20 of which are among the state’s most economically distressed.

Victor Soto Castro is just one of the 274 students who have participated in the program. Victor applied for the 2017 Summer Youth Leadership program as a junior at JD Clement Early College High School, a time in his life that he describes as having no sight of the future. Now, one year later, Victor is preparing to attend Tufts University as a first-year student, having earned a full-tuition scholarship as a result of his academic merit.

The 2018 class of youth leaders includes 22 students from across the state, giving the future leaders the opportunity to work alongside people who are not like them, bringing together youth of different races and ethnicities, social economic statuses, and geographic backgrounds. Leonzo Williams, a rising senior at Northern High School in Durham and member of the 2018 cohort, notes the unique opportunity to work with students who are not just like him, “at school, and later in work, I’ll need to work alongside a group of people who have mindsets and backgrounds that are not like mine. The Youth Leadership program will prepare me for this.”

Leonzo and his fellow youth leaders will be the first to participate in a new design challenge aspect of the program: In addition to attending leadership sessions and participating in peer mentoring, students are working in teams to create a fictitious nonprofit, assigning themselves leadership positions, creating marketing plans, developing boards, and working through other organizational development issues. Each team will develop a set of criteria for evaluating nonprofits’ organizational effectiveness, evaluate existing nonprofits, and, thanks to generous corporate support, select a nonprofit to receive a $250 award in recognition of its success.

Tara Kenchen, President and CEO of the Initiative, sees the program as a critical opportunity for young people to grow and learn over the course of the summer, “Each year we are increasingly impressed by the students’ growth over the course of the summer, and by their ability to use this experience to address challenges they see in their communities.”

Youth leaders discuss common interests during break from the opening day sessions. Clockwise from top left: Samara Perez, Durham; Matthew Atisa, Chapel Hill; Leonzo Williams, Durham; Manus Panchavati, Cary

Mark Colebrook, a parent of a 2018 participant, agrees and has been particularly impressed with the program leaders’ energy and deft handling of complicated topics. A discussion on structural racism and its impact on community economic development has really stuck with his daughter, “The presenters’ skillful presentation of those topics will enable these 17-year-olds to enter the adult world with their eyes wide open, ready to make a difference in their communities.”

Colebrook also noted the importance of the Summer Youth Leadership program’s parent workshops, “For me, it’s helpful to sit and talk with parents that are going through similar stages with their children. We all have the same goals and fears. Being in the parent workshop and really taking the time to learn about community economic development and what can we expect for our kids was enlightening for me. I wonder, how can I become more involved in the work?”

By engaging and supporting these young people and their parents, the Initiative is engaging and supporting North Carolina’s pipeline of leaders who are committed to building upon our communities’ assets and working towards economic opportunity for all.

For more information on our Summer Youth Leadership program, please visit the program webpage.