Peer Summit 2020: An organizers’ conversation on the importance of this youth-led event

Campaign Victories

“I went to Peer Summit in 8th grade, and loved it so much! There were rappers, poetry, kids got to get onstage. I randomly came up with a rap that I performed on stage – I’d never done that before.” 

Peer Summit youth organizers, from left to right: Lev Elbachri, Jope Ma, Eloise Leer, Marissa Lee, DJ Straiten.

That’s Eloise. She goes to Tamalpais High School and is one of five youth who organized and implemented yli’s annual Peer Summit late last month. Hosted at Dominican University in San Rafael, the event brought hundreds of local middle schoolers from across Marin County together for a full day of presentations, performances and workshops.

“I took part in organizing this year because I like the way Peer Summit makes middle schoolers think outside of their comfort zone, as well as learn things that they wouldn’t have learned in school,” said Eloise. “We had a workshop that dealt with our online lives – how much time we’re spending on social media, what’s appropriate to do online and what could affect us down the road. Another workshop was on opioid use – I would never learn that in other places. I especially think that the nicotine workshops were important. All of these workshops handled big problems and challenges in our communities and throughout the world. I think it is so important that we all came together to talk about these things and work on them.”

By Youth, For Youth

At 9am, middle schoolers began to pour into the hall, grabbing folders and snacks, filling out name tags, and filing into seats near their friends. A carefully crafted playlist of upbeat music filled the room. There was a momentary hush as the five Peer Summit organizers lined up behind the podium to give their opening announcements. Amber Allen-Peirson from Powerful Beyond Measure grounded the participants with a call for self-love, and then the room was once again abuzz as students rushed off to their first workshops.

Amber Allen-Peirson from Powerful Beyond Measure addresses the crowd.

As the hall grew quiet, the organizers talked about why youth events like this are so important. “Our generation values really different things from other generations,” explained Eloise. “We’re often judged about the things we find important – the issues and topics. But it’s such a different world than it used to be, so what we find important and what we value in life – it’s just very different from our parents.” DJ, a student at Marin Oaks, pointed out that the challenges youth face are also different in this day and age: “Older generations didn’t have some of the things that we do now, like technology and e-cigarettes. These weren’t challenges that our parents faced. So youth are relying more on their friends nowadays.” 

So when the group started organizing the event back in November, they began by thinking about their own experiences, and identifying issues uniquely faced by youth in their community. “We came up with a whole list of things ranging from self-confidence and the way we look at ourselves, to how we can be better people, to everyday problems like nicotine,” said Eloise. “We spent time picking problems that are closest to us and then thinking about which organizations have focused on them and could do workshops.” 

Since that first meeting, the group met every other Thursday to do the planning. They also had a group text thread, and spent time looking at materials at home. “So even when we were not physically in a meeting at yli, we were always discussing the event, texting each other – communication was open 24/7,” said Lev. “A lot of the work we’ve been doing is decision-making as teens and young adults – and reaching out to other teens to find out what’s best suited to them.” And it showed. From the hand-painted signs, to the Instagram photo booth, to the workshop selection and lunchtime activities, the event felt different – it had been created not just for youth, but by youth. 

Marissa and Lev go over their speeches.

This was not lost on the youth participants. “I actually learned things that I didn’t know and it really helped me, and it’s going to really help me in the future,” said one student from Mission Valley Middle School. The workshop she attended on “Nicotine and Youth” spoke directly to an experience she has had at her school: “Something that I noticed in my school is that young people are already into vaping and smoking. I think it’s good for us to learn to talk to them and tell them it’s not good and show them what we learned here.”

How Youth Listen

Youth leadership is important, explained the organizers, because youth listen and take in information from each other differently than they do with adults. They described how their personal experiences of ageism – a form of oppression based on age – impact their ability to communicate with adults: “Whenever I speak up in a group of the older generation, I feel so judged, but that won’t stop me from continuing saying my truth” said Marissa, a Marin Community College student. “I have to push through and continue to do what I truly believe.” DJ concurred: “Older people are used to a particular mindset, so when a young person comes in and threatens that mindset, the response is often: ‘you’re young, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ or ‘you’ve never experienced that.’ But we do experience things, we see things happen in our communities, and we feel like we should speak on them. It’s really important for younger students to speak up and change things, especially where adults are stuck in a fixed mindset.” 

According to Eloise, this “creates a border between generations and our ability to talk about our problems because adults don’t understand, or don’t think it’s as important as we do.” Because of this, “young people can influence their peers to take a stand on what they believe in in ways that adults can’t.” 

This was a sentiment shared by the youth participants. Charlie, a 7th grader from San Jose Middle School, who participated in the event, said: “All the workshops I saw were led by students without any adult supervision and I think having students lead this is a huge help. Adults think differently than young people. I think it’s a better idea to have this led by young adults because they’ve had more of an experience of what’s been happening in our generation than adults.”

So deeply held is this value of peer-to-peer communication and shared learning, that the organizers – who are high school and college-aged – made sure to step aside so that those interactions could happen between the middle schoolers. “We’re seeing kids becoming more proactive about the problems and issues that they find important – and we’re here to help lead them in that direction,” said Eloise. “We put on an event, we made decisions about what workshops to include, but what’s most important is bringing them together to interact with each other: 8th graders talking with 8th graders, 7th graders talking with 7th graders. In their smaller groups, they can start talking about some of the problems raised in the workshops. They have the opportunity to learn new things, find things they’re passionate about, and talk about issues they’re going to want to fix in their lifetime.”

Lev and Eloise pose in front of the Instagram photo booth.

Defining Success

Overall, the event was a huge success. “I learned a lot more about how dangerous drug abuse can be,” said Jack from San José Middle School. “It was a very interesting conversation. I think that drug usage most of the time isn’t the right answer for how to cure sadness.” For Mimi, also from San José Middle School, it was important that the event was youth-led: “I think these kinds of events are important because we get the training that we need to help our peers and educate more people, and to inform about what is happening in our society and how to help make change. I think it’s very important that it’s coming from a perspective of peer-to-peer – we get to see each other’s ideas and hear what each has to say.”

“I’d recommend it to other young people because you can learn a lot,” said Stephanie from Mission Valley Middle School. “The biggest lesson is that you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up about what you think is right.”

There were, of course, a few hiccups in the road – mainly around holding the middle schoolers’ attention during announcements at the beginning and end of the event. But even those became opportunities for learning and growth. “I realized that you can’t plan out every single little thing in life, so things are going to just happen. I’m happy that I had people here to help back me up and talk me through it because if they hadn’t, I definitely think I would have gotten in my own head about it, where I wouldn’t have enjoyed it,” said Lev. “This whole thing is about making sure that the kids are enjoying it – this what this event is for, this is who we want to speak to.”

Success was also about the deep relationships the youth built over months of organizing: “I really liked being part of the planning committee because the people in it are really welcoming and they’ve been really positive,” said Jope, a student at Novato High School. “Whenever I walk into the office I feel that it’s nice to see everyone again. And while discussing ideas and seeing how my peers on the planning committee were taking on the part of being a leader at this event, I noticed how they’d chosen to approach it and what their strengths of being a leader are – being in the room and seeing that is very encouraging to me, and I could strive to do something better by their examples.”

The team huddles before the final session.

“I came to this group and I wondered how it was going to function, how it was going to be. Even on the first meeting when we all saw each other – we just knew each other. We laughed! That’s how it is every meeting. It’s just fun,” said Lev. “Planning this has been a really great lesson to teach me that when you need to be vulnerable, when you need to speak up and speak for yourself, do it.” If building up youth voice is the biggest outcome, here, then the biggest lesson is that peer-to-peer support is the most important component in building that voice. “I’m surrounded by people who can uplift me,” concluded Lev. “Problems can always be fixed when you have people who you’re comfortable with and like being around.”