Youth Empowered to Find their Voice, Push for Better Future

WASHINGTON – Abuse, violence and drug dealing were not a rare scene for Margaret Williams growing up in Tacoma, Wash.

A 16-year-old Wilson High School student, Williams wanted to see change in a neighborhood she described as "not healthy" and where her aunt lived across the street from a crack house.

So for the past 20 weeks, Williams has been training to find her voice as a youth.

She joined World Vision's Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), an intense five-month series which has trained her and some 70 students in nine cities across the nation this year to learn how to be activists, voice their concerns and proposals for change and be a part of the civic process in their local communities, among other impacting efforts.

Although World Vision is largely recognized for its international relief and charity efforts, the Christian organization has lately focused on domestic and youth issues and launched the Youth Empowerment Project last year, according to Paulette Brown, who heads the initiative in Tacoma.

"Just by them (World Vision) focusing on youth is very empowering," Brown commented. "We do relief work ... but at the same time, we want to look at issues [close to] home."

Laura Blank, a spokeswoman for the international organization, said many youths felt overwhelmed at how big the problem of youth violence was in each of their communities.

"They want to do something, but don't know how," Blank explained. "This gives them the opportunity to make a difference."

So when Williams was presented with the opportunity on a last-minute notice, she hopped on board.

"I didn't want to have people my age go through the abuse and violence [I've seen]," Williams said.

The 20-week YEP project culminated with a visit to Capitol Hill this week.

After surveying neighbors to identify some of the major problems in their local cities, the participating students created various policy proposals – all with the same goal of bettering their community – to present to members of Congress.

Some of the proposals, since last year's student delegation, have already been implemented into bills.

Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) introduced last October the Youth PROMISE Act to reduce juvenile delinquency and criminal street gang activity. Currently endorsed by over 200 national and state organizations, the measure aims to provide resources for comprehensive prevention and intervention strategies.

"When somebody joins a gang, that's a choice. And knowing what you get yourself into when you make the choice to join a gang, I've got to wonder 'what were the other choices that you had if out of all your choices, that's the best you can come up with?'" Scott said as he met with YEP students Tuesday.

"Wasn't there a boys and girls club? Wasn't there a boy scouts or girl scouts? Wasn't there some church activity? Wasn't there something?" Scott posed.

"We want to make sure that as children grow up, they have other choices than joining gangs and getting in trouble," he highlighted.

Scott also denounced the billions of dollars that are going into building prisons when the money could be invested "guaranteeing every kid in the city a summer job, after-school programs" and other prevention programs.

After their last visit with a member of Congress, the Tacoma delegation felt leaders on the Hill need to do more to invest in youth.

"We are the next leaders," stressed Sandra Mays, 16, from Foss High School. "I think they need to take a different approach and reach out to kids."

As for Williams, she wants to encourage her peers to get involved and let their voices be heard and eventually see change.

"Really all I want is for it to be better for them, for the next generation," she said. "Once it starts here and it keeps going [to successive generations], it'll turn out to be good."