At Boys & Girls Clubs, we believe STRONGLY in youth voice. Not literally just their voices when they talk or sing (although we love those too!), when we say youth voice in the youth development context, we mean the ideas, opinions, and actions of young people. Offering Club members the chance to have input into the content and format of program offerings, physical design of spaces, and more is part of building a welcoming atmosphere that truly meets youth where they are with what they need.
Youth voice is at the very center of our flagship teen program, Keystone. If you aren’t familiar with it, Keystone is a club within the Club that gives teens ages 14-18 opportunities to make leadership decisions, serve others, and engage in experiences that help to shape their knowledge of academic, career community service, and teen outreach initiatives and projects. Keystone Club teens can also attend the BEST EVENT of the summer- the Keystone Conference! Each year, teens from across the country gather together to learn, get inspired, and have the most fun. But the best part? Almost everything at the Keystone Conference reflects youth voice, from the conference theme to the session topics.
At the start of the planning season, BGCA convenes a Steering Committee of teens and advisors from Keystone Clubs, and they have an epic session of brainstorming about what the conference should be about. For 2021, they decided on the theme “Rise Up We Won’t Be Stopped!” The aim is to encourage teens to rise up in the face of adversity and to provide them with a sense of hope and excitement for the future. When I say it is going to be incredible?!?! It is going to be INCREDIBLE. Usually you have to be a member of a qualifying Keystone Club to go, but in 2021 the Keystone Conference is open to all teens, whether a member of a Boys & Girls Club or not! Register FREE by July 9!
But circling back to that brainstorming session- the Steering Committee came together to answer some guiding questions, including “what do you want teens to walk away with”, “what key message do you want to share and why”, “what is positively influencing/inspiring teens today”, and even “what energy do you want to create?” They also put together a gallery wall of the top issues affecting teens in America today, and it is profound. It isn’t often we get such a clear insight into what a diverse groups of teens is thinking about. So let’s dive in!
In no particular order, teens in 2021 care about:
Teens today care about what is happening socially and politically. We heard over and over about the need for greater equity, equality, and advocating for human rights. They’ve felt the direct effects of issues like immigration and racial inequality, and they are dedicated to activism. While they use the tactics of teens and others from other decades such as peaceful protest, they are adept at harnessing the power of modern tools like Tik Tok to share their opinions and hear from others. Diversity, respect, and empathy are leading values, and in the words of one teen, “doing what’s right.”
Self care and mental health are a bigger part of public conversation than ever before, and our teens raised it as a major priority. The teens in our advisory group spoke about feeling isolated and overwhelmed, misunderstood and searching for help. Many of these issues were amplified by the pandemic and quarantining, including loneliness and fear. Re-entering in-person life brings a new set of anxieties. Teens who have been home for months in isolation from their peers during this critical time of social development are having to re-learn how to exist with other people, and how to handle the awkwardness that can ensue. Feeling misunderstood by, pressure from, and disconnected from their families rose up more than once, highlighting the importance for a community of supportive adults. “A silent cry out for help,” wrote one teen, “I need an escape.”
Virtual Drain & Communication Online vs. In-Person
The pandemic increased the use of virtual tools, with almost all schools, especially high schools, moving to 100% online classes for much of 2020 and into 2021. But when speaking about the ways that the digital world and constant screen time is impacting their lives, it was much bigger than school. “We are the social media generation,” said one teen, “we are internet slaves” said another. The dual struggles of information overload plus the misinformation rampant online brings stress and youth don’t always know where to turn for resources or people they can trust. While teens have shown incredible resilience in adapting to this new way of working and being, they find it increasingly difficult to focus and worry about long-term effects.
Communication is also a topic of concern. Developing connections with other people is different than they are used to, and many are finding it hard to readjust to “regular” life. Teens have been communicating only virtually and it is taking a toll. They are navigating the differences between talking online or through text to back to face-to-face conversation, feeling like they don’t know the new “rules” and are being misrepresented. Does using all capital letters in texts still mean they are YELLING? Who determines what these new norms are?
Almost every teen on our panel mentioned climate change as an issue they are worried about. They’ve moved beyond the debates of previous generations about the reality of the situation, seeing it as a crisis that is affecting their lives directly, pointing to global warming, the icecaps melting, and extreme weather occurrences. “Its the youth that are now inheriting the problem,” one member stated. Rethinking how humanity interacts with nature, and ways that we can learn from how our ancestors and other cultures lived are possible paths forward.
Addiction came up in a couple of areas, both around social media and substance abuse. Teens feel pressure from their peers to try risky behaviors and to follow current trends, even when they are negative. The changing legal landscape has an impact too- while there were crackdowns on the vaping industry it is still a problem, and marijuana legalization around the country means weed is more accessible in some places than ever before. Messaging framing both as “healthier” alternatives to other substances is confusing, and doesn’t acknowledge the downsides or how they can lead to more harmful substance use. Teens recognize the marketing machines behind legal substances, calling them “money grabbers,” but struggle with the need for distractions from the stress and overwhelm they feel.
Teens today have a lot to deal with. It’s why afterschool continues to be so vital. We cultivate welcoming, inclusive, emotionally safe spaces where youth can connect with their peers and be supported by adults who care about them, and can help them navigate the hard stuff and be ready for the future. These are really big issues, none with easy solves. But we will do #WhateverItTakes to #RiseUp!
The topics from this brainstorming session that teens voted on as their top priorities, including Racial Equity & Social Justice, Mental Health, Communication, Virtual Drain, and COVID-Life, will be integrated into sessions at the Keystone Conference July 22-23, 2021. All teens, including those who are not currently members of Boys & Girls Clubs, are invited to attend for free! Register by July 9, and Boys & Girls Club staff can visit the Keystone Zone for more information, including about pre-conference events.