Please note: Entries within this blog may contain references to instances of domestic abuse, dating abuse, sexual assault, abuse or harassment. At all times, Break the Cycle encourages readers to take whatever precautions necessary to protect themselves emotionally and psychologically.  If you would like to speak with an advocate, please contact a 24/7 peer advocate at 866-331-9474  or text “loveis” to 22522.

Youth Advocates Aren’t the Future; We’re the Present

In May of 2017, I attended the Consolidated Youth Spring Institute, Building a Framework for Success in Chicago, Illinois. It’s here that I felt confirmation that as young people, we’re not the future of advocacy and change; we’re the now. This conference is held in partnership with the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), Break the Cycle, Alliance of Local Service Organizations (ALSO), and Men Can Stop Rape. This Institute provides grantees of the Consolidated Youth Grant with the opportunity to demonstrate our successes, network, and learn from one another to ensure that everyone has the support and information needed to maximize program success through this grant. The workshops focus on community partnership, grant management, sustainability, and capacity-building. With a priority on youth, grantee voices, and applied learning, the Spring Institute topics this year included, “Storytelling and evaluation outcomes as sustainability tools”, “Evidence-based practices for children exposed to violence, youth, and engaging men and boys”, “Evolution of the gender-based violence movement”, and the “Continuum of prevention, intervention, and response”, among many others.

As a first time attendee of the Consolidated Youth Spring Institute, I had an amazing time meeting peers and colleagues who share the journey of promoting healthy relationships in our communities. I especially enjoyed connecting with other youth from various parts of the nation who are also passionate about putting an end to gender-based violence. The positive energy that was present throughout the course of the three days conference was truly inspiring. Everyone in the room came with a drive to inform and learn from one another through the successes and challenges we are experiencing. The field of violence prevention and youth need these kinds of spaces because they show that the issues that affect youth are taken seriously. Attendees were very open in sharing why and how their methods of engaging youth have been successful as well as collaboratively brainstorming of ways that challenges can be resolved by incorporating young people’s needs and voices. It’s clear that everyone was there to learn the best practices and how to highlight issues that are relevant to the efforts that need to be done in order end to violence.

This is the first conference I have been to that highlights the importance of youth voices and leadership in order to bring change for current and future generations. The Youth Breakout Sessions were my favorite portion of the conference. During these sessions, the Institute not only ensured a safe space where we could express our worries, anger, confusion, and doubts, but also a space to discuss achievements, provide hope, and offer support for one another. The group of youth allies in these sessions was very diverse, which allowed us the opportunity to educate one another on the barriers that our specific communities encounter when we talk to youth about healthy relationships. These kinds of conversations help increase our cultural competence as advocates and allies as we learn how the same issue can affect young people in so many ways due to culture, geography, family beliefs, and personal experiences. By the end of the breakout sessions, we all agreed that action steps need to be taken to decrease violence, promote healthy relationships, and become a more inclusive society. As a group, we discussed ways in which we can encourage people across generations to challenge gender norms and stereotypes that have been normalized for centuries in a way that is relevant to today’s culture. As we shared the successes in our communities and what has personally influenced and encouraged us to become involved in this work, we inspired each other to try new projects within our communities and creatively seek methods of engaging other youth and leaders in this work.

As I talked with some of my group members, we shared how we felt empowered knowing that the Institute wanted us to share our experiences and knowledge with the adult attendees in the form of a panel discussion. The panel was a phenomenal way of connecting with the people who might not identify as youth or who may have a difficult time understanding the youth perspective when it comes to issues related to unhealthy relationships and violence. It is very common that our experiences as youth are not taken seriously or are minimized which can be a big barrier for victims of violence to talk about the abuse or seek help. During the panel, the audience was very respectful and honored our messages as experts in this field as we are personally experiencing or closely working with peers who have experienced gender stereotypes and/or violence in this current generation. The feedback we received from adults after the panel discussion was so uplifting that it sparked me to continue using the power of my voice to stimulate discussions amongst peers and adults that will lead to positive actions and change.

Being a part of the Institute reassured me that we, as young advocates, are not alone. There are so many young people nationwide involved in ending gender-based violence, as well as adults that are available to provide support along the way. The Institute recharged me with energy, strength, motivation, and encouragement to continue advocating for victims of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It also enlightened me to find new ways in which I can spread the message of healthy relationships in fun and interactive approaches among the youth in my community. The lessons I learned at the Institute can be easily implemented by all youth who are interested in and passionate about preventing and ending violence in their communities. There are things we can do day to day that can help make a change. For example, start conversations with peers about what healthy relationships look like and what our rights as well as responsibilities are in a relationship. We can also post healthy messages on social media rather than sharing images or videos that reinforce stereotypes or romanticize unhealthy relationships and violence. It is also important to connect with leaders in our communities to voice our concerns about violence and become involved in programs that focus on creating awareness and taking action towards ending gendered-violence. As young advocates, it is crucial that we use the power of our voices and leadership to create a safer environment for current and future generations. I look forward to attending future Consolidated Youth Institute gatherings to continue to build a strong network of allies who inform, support, and empower one another with a means to help youth engage in healthy relationships and bring an end to violence in homes and communities.

This blog was contributed by Dalila V., who works with the Chass Center and attended the Consolidated Youth Spring Institute in spring 2017.