In addition to being the leaders of tomorrow, young people can be catalytic leaders for today. This capacity has become increasingly evident in the past few years, as youth leaders have prompted civil discussion and constructive policy change across the country. The potential of youth leadership has inspired a project in Nevada called “Nevada 95 Network,” which is part of the national Community Voices for Health initiative (see box). The Nevada 95 Network is led by the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities (Guinn Center) and the Clark County Department of Social Service.
“Nevada’s community partners understand the need for including youth in decisions that affect the young people they serve,” stated Nancy Brune, Executive Director of the Guinn Center. “Developing programs with the underlying message of inclusion is often more difficult than it seems. Nevada 95 Network’s mission is to strengthen the connections between service providers and youth end-users to improve health outcomes, build youth leadership and civic engagement capacity, and strengthen youth representation on existing projects. Nevada lacks a formal network of youth leaders and advocates. In the same way Nevada’s Interstate 95 connects our communities, our Nevada 95 Network seeks to connect youth from the north and south, and from rural, tribal and urban geographies.”
Nevada 95 Network’s mission is to strengthen the connections between service providers and youth end-users to improve health outcomes, build youth leadership and civic engagement capacity, and strengthen youth representation on existing projects.
Nevada youth face particularly difficult challenges. The state ranks in the top three in the U.S. in rates of unsheltered homeless youth; suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24; and as recently as 2010, 70% of elementary school children in the Clark County School District with behavioral health needs were not receiving services or treatment. The state also struggles with an uninsured rate of 11.2%, placing it within the top 10 highest rates of uninsured people in the U.S., with young adults and children (ages 0-25) accounting for almost 31% of the state’s uninsured population.
One of the core beliefs of the Nevada 95 Network is that youth leaders can make a significant difference on challenges faced by vulnerable youth—but to do this, vulnerable youth themselves need to be supported as leaders. To make this happen, the Nevada 95 Network partners are creating new avenues for youth leadership, strengthening existing opportunities, connecting youth leaders with social service providers, and creating a coherent statewide voice on issues important to vulnerable youth.
There are gaps in Nevada’s youth engagement landscape that this work has already begun to fill. Initial sessions with social service agencies and non-profit service providers turned into solution-focused discussions related to:
1) Lack of transportation
2) Lack of stipends to pay youth for their time
3) Lack of information-sharing across agencies, and
4) Adults who do not understand (and have not had training in) how to meaningfully support youth engagement.
In recent months, we have held several webinars for community members. While youth voices are rarely included in formal decision-making processes, and community advisory committees for government agencies often do not include youth representatives, the Nevada 95 Network is looking to change this. By modeling effective youth engagement and offering learning opportunities for community partners, in a short time, they’ve already seen results. A recent housing program included youth stipends in their budget to allow for monthly youth engagement in project design and quality improvement processes and three partners have come together and identified a potential funding source for youth who participate in public/private boards. Nevada 95 Network is also focused on ensuring that young adults with disabilities, black and brown youth, and LGBTQIA+ youth are included in engagement opportunities across the state.
Alexa Alessi, Nevada 95 Network’s Youth Project Coordinator noted, “By bolstering youth voices and creating an infrastructure that connects youth advocates to one another and also securing easier access to decision makers, youth will have more power to enact change regarding issues that most deeply affect them.”
By bolstering youth voices and creating an infrastructure that connects youth advocates to one another and also securing easier access to decision makers, youth will have more power to enact change regarding issues that most deeply affect them.
Photo Credit: Get Outdoors Nevada
One of the groups working on challenges is a youth advisory board developed in 2017 to provide feedback and help inform programming focused on youth. Branded as “Young Adults in Charge” (YAC) in 2018, the board is a sub-working group of the Southern Nevada Homelessness Continuum of Care (CoC), and provides advocacy for youth programs from the perspective of youth who are currently or have previously experienced homelessness. YAC has gone on to develop a formal governance structure and has been influential in designing youth programming in Southern Nevada related to homelessness issues. In the 2019 legislative session, they testified on behalf of several bills related to youth homelessness, including Assembly Bill 363, which is geared towards removing obstacles (such as fee waivers) for unaccompanied children and youth under the age of 25 who are looking to obtain an identification card or driver’s license (identification is a much-needed resource for homeless or at-risk youth who are seeking work, shelter or assistance from social services).
YAC members, tribal youth, and youth with lived experiences have been involved in all aspects of Nevada 95 Network’s program design and development as trusted partners in the process.
Fundamentally, the work of the Nevada 95 Network embodies and expands the notion that young people matter to their communities—that they are cared about and care for their community, that they make important contributions, and that their presence makes the community better. Attitudes about mattering have been shown to be an important influence on a wide range of other outcomes for young people, including dropout and suicide rates. Modes of engagement designed by young people who matter, for young people to matter, could have significant impacts at a number of levels.
Communities have a moral imperative to help young people become the leaders of tomorrow. Communities also benefit from growing local capacity for young people to be catalytic leaders today. This all will take careful thinking and planning to create more supportive, sustained opportunities for engagement, in Nevada and elsewhere.