We Make it What We Want it to Be: From the Frontlines of Youth Development

yli is My Story

How many of us have had a job, especially in the nonprofit world, for a decade? These are the few, the proud. The ones who’ve stuck around through thick and thin, watching others as they come and go. They have held fast through uncertainty… because they were certain about something: that this organization is doing something important that they wanted to be a part of.

Following is the fourth in our series From the Frontlines of Youth Development – a look back after 10 years.

yli was my first professional job after college. When I read the job description, I knew immediately that yli was where I wanted to be. The social justice issues, the campaigns and community engagement, the focus on working with young people – it was my dream job, and it was in my hometown. After being in San Francisco, where there are so many awesome work opportunities, I had been worried that I wouldn’t find work that I love in Fresno. So it was serendipitous that yli had just opened an office in Fresno.

The interview process was long – a total of four interviews – and kind of hilarious: informal, disorganized, nerve-wracking and totally fun. My second interview was basically a brainstorming session on how yli could be more authentically connected to community. I had so many ideas and was so wrapped up in the excitement of it that I shared them freely without knowing if I’d be hired. I knew yli was going to play a vital role in transforming Fresno for the better, so I started learning about yli as a passion project. I decided I was going to be part of what yli was doing regardless if I was on staff. 

In the end, I didn’t get the job I applied for. I didn’t have the lived experience or expertise in rural communities to fit the prevention coordinator role. I grew up in the City of Fresno, and most of my work with youth had been in the hyper-urbanized city of San Francisco. But my passion for the work didn’t go unnoticed, and yli asked me if we could co-create a role that utilized my skills and talents. I was like, “Wow!! YES!!” At the time, yli needed a lot of support for their center for education and research – an earlier iteration of Training and Consulting Services – and I had some good ideas for connecting with the local community. So I started as the one and only, ever, Research & Outreach Coordinator.

When I joined, only three people were working in the Fresno office. I remember feeling the thrill of being pioneers in community change work. At that time, folks were not really talking about youth leadership in a community context. yli would come into spaces and really challenge people’s ideas of what change could and should look like. Disrupting the status quo was fun and challenging. 

At the time, our contracts mostly centered around underage drinking. So when a new project arose to address access to healthy food, I was charged with leading it. I convened a small group of young people from all over Fresno to research access to healthy food in underserved neighborhoods. Youth interviewed neighborhood residents, mapped for food deserts, talked to store owners. The research was incredibly dynamic. They were so invested in the neighborhood and in the project that they started organizing their friends and taking on side projects, like working with the City on illegal dumping. 

The project resulted in a store makeover in partnership with a local store owner – the shelves were stocked with fruits and vegetables. The project got a lot of attention. Store makeovers are popular now, and there are plenty of models for doing it, but back then it wasn’t common. The local news ran a story on it, funders perked up, and people around the state contacted us to ask us how we did it. 

While working on this project, it really sunk in for me that yli could make a tremendous impact in Fresno. The Fresno that I grew up in was going to be completely transformed by young people taking on leadership. It was a huge “aha” moment for me: this is how change happens.

But people remained very skeptical about youth leadership. Their enthusiasm for it was patronizing – it was warm, fuzzy, cute. But when young people really started voicing their experiences and sharing their research findings, when they demonstrated their expert lens on the conditions of their communities, many adults began to feel threatened. Those who had been working in youth development felt they had expertise about what youth needed, and doubted young people’s capacity to be change agents. I had my own doubts. I wasn’t as confident in the work as I am now, and wondered if I was really the kind of leader and partner worthy of such work. But the young people didn’t question it for one second. “We’re doing it,” they said. And that clarity, confidence, and perseverance rooted me in the work.

I’ve definitely seen how this work has benefited Fresno. I was born and raised here. When I was growing up, there wasn’t any type of youth leadership work – at least, not anything like what yli does. We’ve been able to change the way people in power see young people – and how they shape their funding, projects, and plans to include youth voice. 

There have been challenges over the years and there was a moment when I questioned whether yli was the right place for me. I was traveling a lot and the work was really hard. We were facilitating trainings with folks who didn’t want to work together and we had to figure out how to get them to include youth. There were so many situations where I felt I failed as a facilitator. And then I was in a really bad car accident coming home from a training in Coachella. I thankfully wasn’t injured, but it was the make-it or break-it moment for me. It felt like a sign: I was doing too much and I couldn’t take it anymore. At the same time, I had bonded with a group of women to whom I was providing training and coaching and I decided I had to see the project through. At the end of the project, they shared the ways my support had enhanced their personal confidence and the quality of their work with youth. Those affirmations and sense of community made me stay with the work.

Over the last 8 years, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of facilitation and training locally, statewide, and throughout the nation. Creating safe places for folks to share, learn, and build the types of partnerships necessary for youth inclusion and community change is my craft and passion. I have honed my facilitation skills through jumping (sometimes reluctantly) into many different types of facilitation and training challenges and failing A LOT. Through every failure, I battled feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, and fear of trying again. There were times that I told myself that I never wanted to facilitate or train again because it can be incredibly painful to fail. But when things did go right, I experienced so much satisfaction and joy; I couldn’t give up. Those experiences made me gritty and resilient. And now I am very confident with my skills and how I show up as a facilitator and trainer.

I’m excited about where we are currently as an organization – where we’re going. The folks we have right now at yli – the young people, the staff – are fiercely committed to our values like never before. We’re fierce, fearless, and put young people at the front. The righteous ferocity we have comes from confidence in our place in the work and the unified commitment to centering youth voice.

Right now, our work is more important than ever. There is so much ugliness and hatred. But young people are so resilient and brilliant. Their ideas are not bound by convention or cynicism. They are so full of hope, it feels tangible. yli is investing in that – and we’re getting our partners, decisionmakers, and community members to invest in it too. I really believe we are entering a world where youth leadership will be seen as vital to change. 

If I could go back and offer my younger, newly hired self a word of advice, it would simply be: “You belong here. Don’t ever question whether you belong or have a crucial role in furthering social justice – you’re not an imposter.” I was definitely made to feel that way at times. I remember being in community meetings knowing that some folks didn’t take me seriously as a young professional woman. I would tell my former self, “Move past that! Take those risks and feel confident about it.” I took risks because I felt like I had to, but not without experiencing an enormous amount of fear and self-doubt. I’m grateful for the confidence I have cultivated through my many learning opportunities at yli.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at yli, is that you have to be flexible and responsive to the folks that you partner with – youth and adults. We are all in a constant state of learning. Much of the work yli does with youth and communities is pioneering, there is no formula. We need to listen deeply and take care of each other to create change that lasts.