A new program is giving Oklahoma high school students the tools to address challenges affecting their generation.
Twenty-five adult advisers and 25 students from 12 high schools across the state came together to join Youth LEAD (Leaders Engaging Across Differences) during a weekend retreat held April 19-21 at Casady School.
Youth LEAD began as an interfaith organization in Sharon, Mass. It is a diversity program that encourages youths to reflect on their values, connect with individuals who may be different, and act together to address challenges locally and globally.
“It's not a program where adults tell (students) what to do. It's youth-led, adult-facilitated,” said Shannon Presti, the director of teen leadership initiatives for the YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City.
Dearies Andrews, 17, a junior at Westmoore High School, is a part of Youth LEAD.
“I'm really excited about this program,” he said. “I've always wanted to do something like this with my peers, but I've never had the tools and the know-how.”
The program was brought to Oklahoma by The Respect Diversity Foundation, The YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City, the Council on American Islamic Relations, Casady School Service Learning and Mercy School Institute.
“Youth LEAD brings a unique cultural competency program to our community,” Presti said.
Sam Karchmer, 15, a sophomore at Heritage Hall, was involved in Youth LEAD when advisers like Presti began discussing the idea of bringing the program to Oklahoma about a year and a half ago.
“We've been talking about it for so long,” he said. “I'm now seeing very clearly all the opportunities we'll have to make a real impact and a real difference in the community.”
Tabitha May-Tolub, the associate director of Youth LEAD from Massachusetts, taught students the program basics.
Presti was alongside students as they learned how to use their voice to become leaders.
“They're so hungry to make a change in their community,” she said. “Youth LEAD gives them very intentional skill sets to put into their toolbox for life.”
Karchmer said, “We feel like we have the tools to go out in the community and make a difference.”
The teens were divided in two groups. They discussed their experiences and how they've dealt with issues such as stereotyping, bullying and suicide prevention.
“It felt like we had all known each other for so long,” Karchmer said.
It didn't matter whether students came from private schools, underprivileged neighborhoods, or what their faith and ethnicity was, they each bonded by telling their stories, he said.
“It's really amazing that we all sat down, opened up and started talking about our experiences,” Karchmer said.
Presti said, “This youth-led initiative empowers teens to communicate effectively about diverse and often difficult topics.”
Andrews was skeptical at first.
“I wasn't expecting to be able to open up about race, religion and other difficult issues,” he said.
He added that he was amazed at how easy it was to share stories among a group of peers who had only known each other for a few hours.
Students said part of what helped them was recognizing what they each have in common.
“They realized that they are so much more united by their similarities than divided by their differences,” Presti said. “Until we sit down and have a conversation, we don't realize how much we have in common with the world.”
The launch of Youth LEAD in Oklahoma City will be the first step in making it a national program.
If you can instill the youth with a sense of respect for one another, when challenges arise they will have the courage to speak out instead of cowering back, Andrews said.
Karchmer spoke about what the group hopes to achieve.
“We all have one goal. And that is to reach across the table and make a difference in this community we share,” he said. “We all live in this community, so let's work together to make it better.”
There is no cost for students or schools to participate in Youth LEAD. Students must commit to monthly meetings and attend yearly training.
For more information on Youth LEAD, contact Shannon Presti at 297-7728 or email@example.com.