Local Teens Prepare To Be Youth Ambassadors

by Keri Hartman,
Youth Empowerment Intern 

This summer, TRCF is bringing eight high school students from all over Allegheny County to the East Liberty Library on Tuesday afternoons for the Youth Ambassador Program (YAP)—lovingly referred to as “Social Justice Bootcamp.” Supported by a grant from the Starbucks Foundation, YAP seeks to promote respect across differences while building the next generation of leaders for progressive social change in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

YAPpers (as they are affectionately known) attend four weeks of workshops around youth empowerment and social justice, aligning with TRCF’s seven issue areas, before sharing their newfound knowledge and skills with younger students by leading a series of workshops for campers aged 9-11 at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA, the Collegiate YMCA (Oakland), and the Thelma Lovette YMCA (Hill District). Through games, discussions, community speakers (including teens from Washington County’s Real Talk Performers), and even a community service day in partnership with Grow Pittsburgh and GTECH Strategies, the YAPpers increase their knowledge of social justice and interact with peers from backgrounds dissimilar to theirs—something all too rare for teens in Southwestern Pennsylvania. In the YAP pre-evaluation, 75% of participants disagreed with the statement “I live in a very diverse community.” For this reason, YAP is serving a vital need in the region, bringing together students from urban and suburban communities (attending public, charter, Catholic and independent schools), and of various races (50% of YAP participants identify as people of color) and income levels.

Some of the deepest, most hard-hitting and ultimately most productive conversations this summer occurred in the response to an activity called “The Privilege Game.” The game begins with all participants standing in a line, an expression of group unity and solidarity that was soon broken as facilitators began reading a series of statements designed to uncover and acknowledge the privileges that make daily life easier for members of advantaged groups, such as “You can go into most supermarkets and find food that fits your cultural traditions,” or “You’ve never suspected that your teachers had lower expectations for you because of your race, gender, ethnicity, or class.” With each statement, participants who felt that the experience was true for them stepped forward, acknowledging their privilege and breaking the line.

Although this activity gave voice to differences within the group in a high-stakes manner, YAPpers agree that its long-term effect was to increase the group’s bonds. “I feel like we are a lot closer after this activity,” said one participant during the group discussion that followed. The game also increased YAPpers’ understandings of privilege, inequality, and social justice. “There’s a lot of advantages that you have that you never even think about,” said another YAPper during the discussion.

YAPpers will complete their training on July 10 and start leading workshops for the YMCA campers on Tuesday, July 17. In these workshops, the YAPpers will become full-fledged youth ambassadors, using games and activities to connect with the younger students in order to help curb bullying and to assist the younger students in identifying safe spaces and people to help them in difficult situations.

Get more updates on YAP happenings this summer on the TRCF Youth Ambassador Program Facebook page.