By Mike McGrath
Tapping the Potential of Non-Traditional Leaders
I haven’t always been a big fan of conventional youth leadership programs. They seem to be places where young go-getters go to network with important people and learn new ideas about becoming better go-getters. What’s the point?
How about a program for kids who aren’t actively seeking leadership positions or looking for ways to maximize the potential they have already exhibited and been recognized for time and time again?
Do I sound bitter? Was I passed over for leadership accolades when I was a youth? Looking back on it, I can’t recall any inspirational mentors who recognized my innate potential, lurking somewhere beneath an off-putting veneer of smart-alecky cluelessness. On the other hand, I can’t say that I was much interested in being recognized either.
So naturally, I’m drawn to the idea of communities trying to develop the less obvious potential leaders who may have been passed over by the usual leadership development entities, and that’s what Salisbury, Maryland, had in mind when it developed its Youth Leadership Academy to focus on engaging non-traditional youthful leaders, those with untapped leadership potential and limited opportunities.
A little background: Salisbury was named one of the “100 Best Communities for Young People” by the group America’s Promise in 2006 and awarded $20,000. The local chapter of the organization met to figure out how to use the money and the planning group unanimously agreed to create an academy focused on developing the community’s “non-traditional leaders,” that is, the kids with untapped leadership potential and limited opportunities.
The Salisbury program is available to any young person between 8th grade and junior year in high school at no cost. It reaches out to local secondary schools and youth organizations. But word of mouth is the most effective recruitment method, the organizers of the academy have found.
The academy works like this: students come together for three days in the summer at Salisbury University to learn new skills and ideas about leadership. From those participants, a Youth Action Team (YAT) is created to plan the next summer’s academy. Any interested graduate of the Academy is accepted for YAT.
YLA graduates have made an impression. Two students won positions in the Student Government Association their freshmen year. Another became senior class president. Other students have served on boards of organizations and attended a Search Institute Conference. One graduate was the Student Representative to the Maryland State Board of Education.
That graduate was also a 2010 Olympic torchbearer for Coca-Cola. Another graduate was accepted into the CIVICUS program at University of Maryland-College Park. Several graduates received scholarships to attend colleges such as Davidson, Morgan State University, Princeton, and Shaw University. Others received the President’s Service Award.
Hundreds of young people have participated since YLA was founded in 2006 and the program has never turned anyone away. One graduate explained that YLA “has brought the youth voice to the table—youth are included in planning groups as an expectation not an exception now.”
Salisbury was an All-America City in 2010 and YLA was one of the programs they touted when they appeared before the civic jury. Salisbury’s was one of several innovative youth-led programs described at the 2010 All-America City Awards. In Chandler, Arizona, a group of young people developed a comprehensive community program to discourage underage drinking and substance abuse. High school students in Middleton, Wisconsin, a finalist in 2009, participated in a planning “charrette” to design a new splash park.
Communities all over the country, in fact, have recognized the importance of engaging young people in leadership development and local problem-solving/decision-making efforts, and it’s beginning to show in terms of the larger numbers of young people who are included in the community delegations at the annual All-America City competition/celebration.
It’s an old cliché to say that young people represent the future of the country. These days the new cliché is that “young people aren’t the future, they’re the present.”
What new youth movements are on the horizon in your community? Are there any youth programs in your town that you think are deserving of accolades? We are always looking to assist in touting amazing stories such as these, so please drop us a line and let us know.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.