Young people have always been at the forefront of social change.

It’s not uncommon today to see examples of young adults joining together to take a stand for social causes, pleading with politicians and driving public policy. There are marches, protests, sit-ins and walkouts — chances are you have participated in or at least witnessed this.

The discussion at the February edition of United Way of Greater Atlanta’s InForum series at The Gathering Spot in West Atlanta focused on the power of youth organizing, and how it is being used across the country to create better outcomes for youth and their communities.

United Way’s Katrina Mitchell drove the conversation Wednesday morning highlighting examples of youth activism — the Selma march, Vietnam War protests and then modern movements like Black Lives Matters and marches organized by survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

Many great social movements have been powered by youth activism, she says.“How would this country be different without the power of young people?” Mitchell says. “How could it be different if young people had not pushed for change?”

Eric Braxton, of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, has played a part in creating new initiatives and new projects for youth to create meaningful social change. He also works to raise awareness about the power young people have.

Braxton said he had been working for FCYO for eight years in a role providing resources to young people to help promote social change.

He said youth have always been at “the forefront of mobilizing and sustaining” social movements.

“Youth organizing is not new,” he said. “Whether it was the civil rights movement or the labor movement, young people have always been at the forefront for struggles of social justice in this country.”

He said this was because young people had “an inherent sense of justice and willingness to stand up for what they believe in.”

In the 90s, there was a new wave of community organizing that spread across the country, he said. Young people had marched for social movements, education and justice reform to end institutional oppression.

This is work that continues today, says Manuela Arciniegas, interim director of the Andrus Family Fund.

“[The Andrus Family Fund is] committed to fostering justice and sustainable change in the United States,” Arciniegas said. “We have a specific focus on advancing outcomes of vulnerable youth and advancing social justice.”

The “vulnerable youth” they refer to are those age 16-24 who are products foster care or the juvenile justice system, according to Arciniegas.

Her organization has partnered with groups who have “successfully closed youth prisons” in multiple states. Through the Andrus Family Fund, Arciniegas identifies young people who have been compromised by systems that may not have always had their best interests at heart.

As a result, young people are thrown into a world without connections to positive supports or services. The Andrus Family Fund helps connect young people to “caring communities, proven services and vital skills that they so sorely missed earlier in their lives.”

“We provide multi-use support, and we leverage our grants by partnering with other foundations,” Arciniegas said.

By organizing young people, you can develop leaders while engaging with your community. This impacts the individual as well as the community and society as a whole, Braxton says.

“This prepares young people to be participants and leaders in a Democratic society,” he said.

Emery Wright, co-director of Project South, spoke about the history of youth activism in the South. He said Project South was founded in 1986 to be a leadership development organization.

“A lot of the work of Project South can really be summed up with a quote by Fannie Lou Hamer, a great civil rights activist who said, ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,’” Wright said. “That’s an easy statement to say, but hard to put into practice.”

Project South spreads this message locally, across the 13 Southern states of the U.S. and globally.

“About 20 years ago, we really started to engage this question of youth leadership development and youth organizing,” Wright said. “We started doing this work right around 1999-2000… and a lot of the [youth organization] was happening on the [East and West Coast], and in the South that energy wasn’t taking place.”

He said Project South has a goal to “build strong, powerful movements.”

“We saw that there was something to the power and potential of youth leadership,” he said. “We knew if we don’t have youth involved, then we’re going to have a big missing ingredient.”

Wright said the power of this youth perspective came to light about 50 years ago. He said this was when a “major turning point in youth culture happened here in the U.S. South,” referring to college students in North Carolina who held the first sit-in. He said this spread like wildfire and introduced people to a “whole new type of non-violent demonstration.”

He said that Southerners had a “proud legacy of youth leadership and youth development,” which has inspired the rest of the world.

Arciniegas agreed with Wright. She said people should continue to follow the examples of young people as they press for more change.

“Dream, Atlanta, dream,” Arciniegas says. “And follow the young people because they will take you there. Youth organizing is the strategy that allows things to happen.”

Change happens in community where ‘leadership, culture and systems’ intersect

By Bradley Roberts

There are a lot of complex needs in the Greater Atlanta region.

In a room full of nonprofit practitioners at the January edition of United Way of Greater Atlanta’s InForum series, those issues were brought to light for a deeper discussion and dive into how we tackle those problems and address those needs.

There was a common pattern among those in attendance: Everybody wants to serve this community.

“The underlying theme is that all of us want to serve,” said Suganthi Simon, the Westside Program Officer for the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. “But we want to address multiple issues. If we are all serving them, then how do we serve people in the right way?”

The discussion Thursday at the Gathering Spot in West Atlanta centered around finding ways to override the current trend across Atlanta and the South as a whole. How do we reverse a lifetime of generational poverty and find innovative ways to improve economic mobility for Atlanta residents?

Well, for a start, you have to make it easier to access services. The talk focused on ways to deliver integrated services to the people that need them most. They focused on ways to remove barriers standing in the ways of families and children from receiving services.

Our partnerships are crucial in ensuring that success, Milton J. Little, CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta, said.

“We should all feel a responsibility to embrace these partnerships to make sure that we all succeed,” said Little. “It’s going to take us all working together, finding things that I do well and you do well so we can serve everyone.”

Ralph Gildehaus, senior program director of MDC Inc, in Durham, North Carolina, works with communities to design support systems for connecting populations with support services.

MDC has partnered with United Way of Greater Greensboro and community stakeholders across Guilford County, North Carolina, to build a technology-based network to deliver integrated services to connect low-income households with resources.

“We have to build what we call our infrastructure of opportunity,” Gildehaus says.

He said change in a community happens when “leadership, culture and systems” intersect with each other. In order to improve the economic mobility of a community, we need to “change the perspective,” and change the conversation.

MDC looked at ways to change habits that affect a system and change the expected outcome. For example, they focused on implementing ways to have every high school student in Guilford County complete a form for Federal Student Aid.

“The intention was a systems change,” he said. “Every student completed a FAFSA form and sent an application to at least one college. As a result of that, more and more students are going to college.”

There were other examples of finding ways to consolidate services for families and people with low income in the community. What they found was that people needed “stabilization and better preparation” for work, health and income services.

MDC recently developed the Integrated Services Delivery Network model to reduce poverty, improve social determinants of health and advance family economic success. But, this is only possible through collaboration.

The Rev. John R. Moeller, Jr. is CEO of Inspiritus, is a nonprofit in Atlanta that serves adults with disabilities, children, refugees and victims of natural disasters.

Moeller said Inspiritus created a Financial Opportunity Center, which brings income supports to help families “beyond basic budgeting.” In the past 18 months, his organization was able to serve victims of three different hurricanes.

Inspiritus also offers services to homeless youth in a “Youth Post-Home” program where they are able to place young adults in a home with families for up to nine months where they “receive integrated services.”

While Gildehaus’ office worked to develop a system of integrated services, Moeller and his office worked on the frontlines to provide those human services.

In Simon’s work with the Westside Program, it was a way at looking how to do both. She said the building of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium sparked a catalyst for conversation on how to address the needs of the Westside.

“We had to unravel some of the pieces put in place that establish the systems that we see,” Simon says.

The Westside Neighborhood Prosperity Fund works with residents and partners to leverage resources and programs in Atlanta’s historic Westside neighborhood.

Simon manages the implementation of collaborative strategies in health, economic inclusion, safety and security and civic empowerment an engagement. Her work looks at breaking the bonds of intergenerational poverty for Westside residents.

Atlanta as a whole is a city that is thriving, but it has the lowest opportunity for economic mobility of any other city in the United States. That means that people born into poverty are not given the chances to move out of it, and while there’s access to jobs, there’s no knowledge of how to obtain those jobs.

But, through access to these services, and by changing the conversation, we’re able to hopefully reverse this fact.

“Communities are experiencing issues on a much larger scale,” Gildehaus said. “We need to take an approach that we can implement across the community. The public sector and nonprofits need to work together to promote these integrated services.”