New Leaders for the New Age
by Lauren Lindenbaum
In a moment dominated by controversy and division, it’s easy to lose faith in the idea of a brighter future. That is certainly how I was feeling prior to stepping into the Collins Center at University of Maine’s Campus on Day 1 of Maine’s Youth Leadership Conference. Having recently been hired onto the Maine Youth Action Network (MYAN) team, I could sense the passion and excitement when team members spoke about the conference but had yet to understand what made this conference different from others. This was the first time MYAN was set to hold a hybrid style conference- with young people and adults from all over the state planning to attend both in person and online, and there was much to be done.
Lucky for the team, there was another group of people working tirelessly to make sure this conference was one to remember. In September, a group of 11 young people from around the state of Maine were chosen to be a part of this year’s Leadership Team. Together, they took on planning the details and content of the event—deciding everything from the theme of the conference to the workshops and voices they hoped to represent. On top of this, they committed months to learning best practices for facilitation, as it was their job to run groups over the course of the two days that offered young participants an opportunity to connect, reflect, and plan their next steps for bringing about change in their communities.
According to team leader Will:
“The leadership team serves as the creative directors and essentially the presence of the conference. The MYAN conference is a youth lead conference for youth and the Youth Leadership Team serves to best accommodate youth, their interests, needs, etc. from a personal and general perspective. A lot of the work the team did was surrounding this concept of making those choices to best fit youths’ needs at the conference.”
On November 3rd, all of their hard work began to pay off as the leadership team, wearing shirts that read ‘New Leaders for the New Age’, welcomed over 100 young people and 40 adults to the Collins Center at University of Maine’s Orono Campus. Simultaneously, young people and classrooms spread across the state were logging onto Zoom to livestream the opening sessions. As the leadership team welcomed everyone to this year’s conference, I couldn’t help but feel the energy and opportunity that comes from being around a group of people who are passionate about creating a better world. It was the perfect setting for young leaders from all over Maine to converge and make connections, engage in difficult discussions, and paint a collective vision for a brighter future.
Throughout the conference young leaders guided participants through two days of deep reflection and discovery, working through what it means to be a young person in today’s world and what kind of future we are collectively trying to create. Workshops covered a wide range of topics from restorative practices to community activism to environmental justice and created spaces to learn diverse perspectives and harness new skills. Team leader Kylie reflected that:
“The 2021 MYAN conference was coursing with utter passion, connection, and collaboration. I think among the best parts of the conference was all the connections made between participants. I loved watching people connect.”
Another highlight of Kylie’s, as well as many other attendees, was the Keynote presentation given by Maya Williams, Portland’s seventh poet laureate. Virtual and in-person attendees listened attentively as Maya performed original poetry on a variety of topics from mental health to the prison industrial complex, sharing how creative expression can be a helpful tool to work through difficult topics and find community. On Day 2, we heard from a panel of young leaders pushing for change in their communities and inspiring others to do the same. Through sharing their experiences, challenges, and hopes, they exemplified the power that young people have when they use their voices.
For a long time now, we’ve been painfully aware of the loss we’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic and our current state of affairs. However, being in this space, I was reminded that there is also a lot to be hopeful for. By no means is this conference the solution to all of our problems, but rather a starting point. A space where young people and adults can come together, re-imagine what a new age could look like, and begin planning tangible steps to get there. Attending this conference was a reminder that while it might be easy to get lost in the struggles we face and feel like giving up, there is an entire generation whose futures are at stake and are working hard every day to make a difference in their communities. According to Kylie:
“I wish more adults knew that, in some aspects, we do need support. Legal documents, finance, and the more technical aspects of youth action require being older than 18. Support is always welcome!”
In addition to young people working on the ground, there are just as many looking for ways to get involved. Will reminds us:
“There are SO many organizations out there tailored around individual interests in youth activism! The main struggle I’ve noticed in the pursuit of youth activism, is the connection of youth to these organizations. Be supportive, provide opportunities! It could change somebody’s life.”
As we enter this new phase of life following the pandemic we have a choice to make. How would we like to proceed? What kind of world do we want to see and what kinds of voices do we want to elevate? I, for one, am looking to the young people of Maine to help answer these questions, and am hopeful that if others join me, we have a bright and exciting future ahead of us!