How this year’s Planning Team made meaning at the virtual MYAN Youth Leadership Conference
by Ysanne Bethel, Networks and Partnerships Coordinator
Where we started
This year, we all had to do things a little differently. In a state of global shock, we leaned into new ways of living, connecting, learning, and in turn we reassessed the role of self and community. This collective reimagining has not been easy and while so much has changed in these past several months, the power of youth leadership is as evident as ever. Indeed, young Mainers across the state continue to advocate on the issues that matter to them the most: from mental health, to racial justice, and restorative practices in schools, young people continue to lead the way. The recent MYAN Youth Leadership Conference is one example of what youth leadership can look like during difficult and unprecedented times. It is a story of perseverance in the face of uncertainty.
Each year, MYAN recruits 12 youth leaders from across the state of Maine to co-design and co-host an annual Youth Leadership Conference. The Planning Team is an essential component of the Conference, as the event is made in collaboration with and for young people. Representing the MYAN staff on the Planning Team are two adult advisors: me (Ysanne Bethel) and Ladi Nzeyimana. Ladi and I love our work because it allows us to amplify the expertise of youth and to support their change-making. As a team, we learned what it meant to be true partners to young people during unprecedented times.
The Youth Planning Team
As one might imagine, in early Spring of 2020 we were unsure if a conference was even possible. With so many unanswerable questions and an increasingly fuzzy picture of the future, there was a general sense of paralysis. As is often the case, curious optimism is what saved us. With a dedicated Planning Team pushing us to think bigger and more creatively, we were able to move from “It can’t be done” to exploratory “What ifs?”
Words cannot adequately capture the commitment and expertise demonstrated by each of the 12 Planning Team members this year – designing, planning, and executing a conference during a pandemic. By the fall it became increasingly clear that the conference would not be our typical in-person event. As adult facilitators, Ladi and I recognized how discouraging this would be for the Planning Team. We talked through our frustrations as a group and made space for collective disappointments.
Despite the significant initial disappointment, youth leaders consistently showed up throughout the 9-months of virtual partnership, pushing through Zoom fatigue and extended programming to achieve what they had set out to do: create an amazing Youth Leadership Conference. During the program’s weekly meetings and occasional weekend workshops, the Planning Team built upon existing individual strengths, leveraging healthy risk-taking and collaborative problem-solving to further deepen their facilitation and leadership skills – assets that will continue to benefit them in other areas of their lives. Along the way, we learned how to show up for one another, take pauses, and share space during the many difficult global and national events that occurred over the past several months. In a time of significant isolation, youth leaders were adamant that even in virtual form the Conference prioritize connection and meaning in our planning.
“The longevity of the [Conference] organizing process helped create and strengthen our relationships…Seeing the [Planning Team] take leadership and be the giant facilitators was the best part of everything” – Planning Team Co-facilitator, Ladi
The Youth Leadership Conference
This year’s Youth Leadership Conference was the culmination of many months of partnership, compromise, and planning. As MYAN’s first large-scale virtual event, the Conference was an experiment in what meaningful online events can truly look like in partnership with young people. After a year of mostly virtual learning and working, the big question was, “Will people really come?” To our relief and excitement, 213 youth and adults from across the state logged in to the virtual platform joining 25 interactive workshops (18 of which led by young people), youth Home-Teams, adult community sessions, and fun lunch activities featuring a Planning Team Panel. Anchored by an amazing keynote offering from Amara, the two days of virtual Conference were full of rich content. Reflecting on one of the best parts of the conference, youth leader Laila said, “The variety of workshops offered this year…created a space where there weren’t just workshops for a select few, but for everyone who came to this conference. [That] is one of the most meaningful pieces.” Workshops were mostly led by young people and covered a wide range of topics including body positivity, mental health, restorative practices, climate justice, holistic substance use prevention, art activism, disability rights, and more. Thanks to the vision and commitment of the Planning Team, this year’s Conference centered and amplified youth organizing in Maine while creating meaningful connection opportunities all while navigating the challenges and benefits of virtual platforms.
“[The] conference represents a step towards youth confidence. I haven’t gone to a conference like this before. It represents a big step towards…making a change.” – Youth Leader, Jayden
Empowering, fun, and meaningful, the Conference encouraged everyone to connect, encounter new ideas, and strengthen leadership and advocacy skills. This is the foundational goal of the MYAN Conference. The MYAN team commits each year to co-creating a youth-driven, inclusive, and supportive environment that invites young people to show up as their whole selves and flex their social-emotional competencies, take healthy contributive risks, and feel a sense of belonging. We do this in partnership with the Planning Team every year, working collaboratively to ensure young people are able to access a Conference environment that realizes these goals.
One youth attendee said:
“The best part of the conference was that…everyone, everywhere that I went, had an open mind. We would contribute to the conversation, and everyone had a drive to learn. It was a very nice environment.”
Youth and adult attendees consistently strengthened their social-emotional skills at the Conference. Over 90% of survey respondents “Strongly Agree” and “Agree” that after attending the Conference they both “know how to use [their] skills and interests to make [their] community better” and they “have a deeper understanding of people’s experiences that are different from [their] own.”
One adult community member remarked:
“I found that I learned a lot by sitting back and listening to the discussion…letting youth take the lead in their own peer-to-peer learning. It was such a great experience!”
Reflection is often at the core of our growing experiences; it allows us to meditate on what we’ve learned and how we can incorporate new skills into our relationships and achieving our goals. Looking back on this experience together, both youth leaders and MYAN advisors are proud of what we accomplished in the face of unprecedented challenges. There is a bittersweet component as well, characteristic of any beloved season finale – after partnering together for the past several months, it’s sad to see the journey come to a close.
“This year I’ve been unconnected from so many. The YPT has been the way I’ve connected.” – Youth Leader, Lydia
As adult advisors, we learn immensely from the young people we partner with. This year, youth leaders invited us to rethink some of our processes and slow down during a time when this was absolutely necessary for our shared success. With the Planning Team partnership, we were able to co-create spaces that valued connection and mutuality, resulting in a youth leadership program that was engaging, purposeful, and mindful about the ways current events impact us.
Youth Leader, Kennady, reflects on the core ingredient for a successful youth adult partnership: “We need to respect each other, not just ‘I can do whatever I want because I’m an adult.’ Respect needs to be mutual.”
As we move forward, these lessons will continue to guide my work with young people for the better, in addition to informing MYAN’s youth engagement practices at large. In the spirit of learning and in honor of youth expertise, we invite you to join us in reflecting: What did you learn from young people this year and why does it matter to you?