In a typical conversation about community leadership, one often thinks of an older, established generation taking the helm. But what about the youth — the younger heads with fresh ideas, innocence and energy? What table are they at?
That’s where Yo! The Movement comes in. On June 17, Yo! pulled together hundreds of youth between the ages of 13 and 18 to brainstorm, talk, and share relevant issues at for its Empower U Tour. Cosponsored by the Young Women’s Empowerment Network, Inc., Urban Leadership Institute and Target, this leadership conference offered a unique opportunity for youth to network with some of the most influential pioneers and professionals in youth development.
“We understand that the young people are powerful and valuable and that sometimes they don’t realize the amount of power they have,” said Toki Wright, Yo! youth engagement supervisor. “This is an opportunity to see themselves, to share information with each other and to learn new things.”
Minneapolis-based Yo! is a nonprofit organization that hosts, promotes and implements safe events, programs and happenings for youth. Empower U evolved out of myriad requests for a boys’ version of Yo!’s local, long-running conference Where My Girls At?.
“We need to raise new leaders,” Wright said. “Looking at the amount of energy being put into young women, the same amount needs to be placed on young men. The young men are getting into a lot of trouble and can be tied into a lot of the negativity the young women are facing. We need our young men to be strong. We need to get them to realize how much power they already have that they may not see now. ”
Now a national tour with pit stops in Minneapolis and Baltimore this year (and more planned for next year), Empower U also offers a safe haven for youth.
“We want to get 750-plus youth in one place to look at each other and see that we can do something positive and not be corny,” said Wright. “It can be something that your friends are not going to laugh at. You can get access to jobs, schools, resources. You can learn about different systems of government, systems of finance, so that you are able to support and sustain yourself. Basically, you can start to vibe with people your age so that you can take that energy and create something with it.”
This year’s Empower U speakers included BET’s Cousin Jeff and Source magazine contributor Rob Biko Baker. Cousin Jeff hosts a series of documentaries exploring community topics such as sexuality in hip hop, the gap between the civil rights and hip hop generations, and youth and obesity.
Baker, a nationally recognized hip hop political strategist and young activist, is an organizer for Campaign Against Violence (CAV). CAV is a Milwaukee-based group working to inspire inner-city teens to take proactive stands against interpersonal violence through agitation, education and organizing.
Empower U’s goal, according to Wright, is simple — getting young people to connect with one another on a positive, safe level.
Referring to the increasing violence and negative activities associated with youth, Wright said, “We know that the climate of the city looks to be dangerous if you are under 18 this summer. We know that if you feel there are no options, you will go toward whatever comes up. I don’t want to stereotype our youth and say that they are all prone to violence, prone to gangs, but it’s definitely hard to be 15. We want the youth to know, and we want the adults to know, there are multiple people out there to support them doing good things.”
To help facilitate this, in addition to the speakers, the event featured workshops led by local youth and community leaders such as Dr. Verna Price, author of The Power of People (JCAMA Publishers, Mpls., 2002), focusing on other topics such as money management, hip hop and spoken word, education, teen pregnancy and parenting, peace building and commercialism. There will also be performances by The Half Pints, C.O.R.E. (Wright is one-half of this duo), Frannie, DJ Snuggles, Maria Isa, Palabristas and others.
Despite the name, Wright added, Empower U is not really about empowering youth. “You already have power. You just need to realize your power and break free of the idea that you’re helpless until some old person comes and saves you and shows you the light.
“You can begin to find the light on your own or from people your own age. You have to make your community look like you and how you want it to look. Youth will continue to be treated as second-class citizens as long as they continue to let people talk to them that way and not understand the rights they do have.”