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Let's Be Real: Following the Lead of Young People

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July 2017 marked the one year anniversary of Let’s Be Real, a movement by young people for young people about relationships. To share our learnings from a year of movement-making and celebrate the accomplishments of the youth who drive it, Break the Cycle staff members reflects on their experiences working with Let’s Be Real in a 4 part blog series. Amy Sanchez, Break the Cycle’s CEO, begins the series by speaking to the national implications of what can be accomplished when we follow the lead of young people.

When I reflect on the multitude of successes in the first year of Let’s Be Real I am in awe of the staff and the young people across the country that have made the vision a reality. For years now, in the “movement” young people have participated in focus groups, given input to programs and have been consulted on public service campaigns. These initiatives, although well-intentioned, can still miss the critical component of centering young people in the work and providing the space for youth-led work. In Let’s Be Real, youth are not seen as the TOMORROW, but the TODAY! Young people ages 18-24 experience intimate violence more than any other age range. Yet their strengths, goals, and needs are rarely considered in program development. This is where Let’s Be Real stands in sharp contrast to the field and is already producing exciting results.

In one year, we have youth leadership in 45 states + DC and international locations through Let’s Be Real. Young people have named and branded their initiative with a fitting name; they have written songs, blogs, poems; they have designed t-shirts and chosen their “swag”; and they have talked to hundreds of other young people in their local communities and developed comprehensive national campaigns. Yes, this is in ONE YEAR.

At Break the Cycle, we have learned an incredible amount from the young people in Let’s Be Real, and we think it’s important to share those insights with the field as initial implications for the national, regional and local work in the movement.

  1. Youth have to lead. Even though this may be scary and may throw all of our assumptions of “core” work out the window, we have to challenge ourselves to follow the lead of young people. They know what they want and need….and what they don’t. The idea for centering the recipients of our work at the center is not new. However, doing this day in and day out; in spite of the implications is, in my estimation, revolutionary to our work.
  2. Be open to fundamental change in our work. From the anecdotal information that we have gathered from over 500 diverse youth all across the country, the concepts of “healthy relationships”, “consent”, and “safety” may have changed. If these seems unlikely, remember how our original understanding of domestic violence has changed over the years. With the explosion of social media and its unique ability to both connect and isolate and provide instantaneous access to pornography, young people live in a different world than 10 years ago. During one of our Real Talks last year one trend became particularly evident: young people live complex lives is a complex world. As Tonjie Reese, Break the Cycle’s Leadership and Engagement Coordinator, told me, “Young people know what healthy and unhealthy relationships are. Where they want to explore and need support is the 85% of all relationships in between.” Our traditional one size fits all approach is inadequate to respond to these complexities.
  3. Realize and act on the knowledge that each young person has a gift. Traditional “leaders” that know how to talk to adults are not the only young people that should be included in our work. In order to prevent and effectively intervene in dating abuse, we need to listen to and engage young people from all walks of life. From the individual that has traditionally shied away from social change work to the young person that has been involved in the juvenile justice system, ALL have a voice to use and message to send; ALL can lead our work. In my estimation, this is the best way to represent the true diversity of youth culture.

Uncovering and sharing these three learnings are just the beginning for Break the Cycle and Let’s Be Real. True to our philosophy, we will continue to learn and expand our understanding of community change from the community itself. There will be ups and downs, no doubt, and some initiatives that we try may go nowhere. But as the staff understands, if we are never failing then we are not going deep enough. I am confident that with the power of centering young people in all that we do and following their lead, the failures will be few and far between and the success will bring transformation.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the blog series on Resource Development in LBR.