By Alexandra Fradelizio | m/Oppenheim Media Writer.
Every week, 2,000 youth across the state of California cultivate a passion for their communities by becoming mindful leaders. Through building relationships with adult mentors, the young participants not only become active community members but also learn how to effectively create change at local and state levels. Based in San Francisco, the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI) works with young adults and operates on the “fundamental belief that our communities are not whole unless every voice is being heard,” explained the organization’s Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Marker.
YLI manages 77 programs throughout California that each encompass the four key components for effective change: leadership development, research, storytelling, and campaign. In order to advocate for their beliefs at local and state levels, all youth participants are required to complete research projects that stem from their personal ideals and experiences. The research conducted by participants is then translated into campaigns, many of which have become instrumental for bettering communities. As a result of their advocacy work, the campaigns led by YLI have helped to change over 120 laws in California.
A major contributor to the successes of the organization is its emphasis on youth-adult relationships. Many of the adult allies are involved in implementing policies at a state level and readily listen to the concerns of YLI’s young participants. The purpose of these partnerships is to “build intergenerational power that brings everyone together and plays on everyone’s strengths” in order to effectively transform communities, stated Marker.
The organization was originally founded nearly 30 years ago during a time when teenagers were considered “a problem that needed to be fixed.” Rather than viewing them as inconsequential to society, YLI’s originators believed that youth could lead campaigns for change and solve key societal issues. Today, the organization continues to grow across California and the nation as the leadership lessons taught to both youth and adults are replicated in 220 communities throughout the US.
“This is a place where we’re just encouraging people to make this their own and grow with the team,” explained Marker.
Over the course of the organization’s history, YLI has also grown to reflect the needs of their young participants. Currently, the vast majority of youth involved in the organization identify as a person of color with two-thirds coming from low income backgrounds.
“There’s a lot more that we are doing to make sure that our young people understand that their communities are places where they are wanted,” stated Marker.
Marker originally became involved in YLI as a volunteer mentor to the youth commission. Prior to joining the organization, he was a history teacher and worked with different civil justice driven nonprofits. Upon becoming a parent and increasing his role within YLI, Marker reflected on “the things that I have the opportunity to be doing more of.” As a result of his leadership, the organization has continued to empower youth and help communities successfully lead themselves, especially during trying times.
“We’re talking about the same issues everywhere in our country, and it’s really just an issue of what we are all going to do to chip in,” he explained.
YLI is continuously working to demonstrate the power of youth as they work with adults in their communities. The nonprofit recently announced the acquisition of YouthWire, an organization that specialized in youth-media advocacy. Additionally, YLI is working to better document and highlight policy changes implemented by the organization’s youth.
Marker and the rest of YLI’s staff remain committed that the organization can “elevate youth’s voice” in order to make positive and long-lasting changes for present and future generations.