Youth Rise Texas is a start-up grassroots organization in Austin, Texas, that provides leadership development for youth whose parents have been deported or incarcerated. The majority of Youth Rise participants are young women of color. A first-time Mary’s Pence grant recipient, Youth Rise completed their first Summer Youth Organizing Institute in August. Mary’s Pence recently spoke with Kandace Vallejo, founder and director of Youth Rise Texas, about the success of the program in its first few months.
“Young people are excited to speak out and to have their voices heard.”
–Kandace Vallejo, founder and director of Youth Rise Texas
This summer, six teenagers came together to share stories of their experiences. They were the first participants of Youth Rise Texas’s 8-week leadership workshop, the summer Youth Organizing Institute, and they had one thing in common: Each of them had experienced having a parent deported or incarcerated, completely removed from their lives with very little warning or explanation. Youth Rise creates a space for youth to open up about the stories of themselves and their families. Participants then craft and perform monologues from these stories, bringing their experiences to the wider community.
Storytelling Bridges Differences
Storytelling brings participants from different backgrounds and interests closer together. Sharing and listening to one another’s experiences shows them that they have more in common than they would have known outside of Youth Rise.
Participants rely on many different media and modes of expression, including daily journal prompts, drawings, and interviewing each other and family members. To select the stories to be highlighted, they participate in a “dot democracy,” where they display their drawings around the room and then go around placing sticker dots on the drawings they find most interesting. Everyone has input over which stories the group chooses for further exploration and eventual performance, and the focus remains centered on the voice, needs, and experiences of each participant.
Through storytelling, participants become more interested in speaking out, telling their stories, and getting more involved in their community. The program “enables and creates a space for their altruism,” says Kandace Vallejo, founder and director of Youth Rise. They begin advocating for themselves in the community, and this sparks an interest in broader community involvement.
Internships in Advocacy and Mentoring Foster Leadership
A Mary’s Pence grant helped fund a paid internship position for two young women from the summer Youth Organizing Institute. The internships support ongoing leadership development through mentoring and social justice work. The two young women work five to ten hours per week, each exploring a civic issue that relates to her interests, such as immigrant detentions and hearings. One of the young women, Destiny, is currently working on criminal justice reform in her community.
They also mentor a large group of their peers once a month during the school year. This experience allows the two of them to assume leadership and ownership for both their community initiatives and the larger group of young women they lead and mentor.
Youth Rise trains young people to use their own unique interests and abilities to implement social justice work in their communities. This long-term leadership development program allows self-expression to lead to self-empowerment.
“Young people are excited to speak out and to have their voices heard,” says Vallejo. “They’re being heard when they do this work.”
Broader Social Change Emerges Out of Personal Stories
The concept for Youth Rise is rooted in founder Kandace Vallejo’s own experience. When she was a teenager, her mom was deported to her home country of Mexico. Vallejo quickly discovered that social justice work and community organizing empowered her and helped her to heal from the trauma of separation. Today, Youth Rise uses community organizing and social justice work to create a space of empowerment for youth in similar situations.
Now, only a few months into Youth Rise’s Youth Organizing Institute, Vallejo is already seeing the transformative effects of community organizing and social justice work on the participants. She has watched the first six Youth Rise participants “move from places of disempowerment to a new space where they can continue to act as agents empowered to make change.”
Youth Rise goes beyond individual change to instill a sense of community engagement in participants, says Vallejo, “a spirit of social justice that carries through the community, beyond just the issues that affect them, and creates broader change.”
Written by Taylor Harwood, 2015-2016 St. Joseph Worker