It is hard to imagine an event that better embodies youth empowerment and engagement than the annual Mockingbird Youth Leadership Summit. The Raikes Foundation has long supported the Mockingbird Society, in part because of the organization’s strong commitment to authentically incorporating the voices of young people into its programs and advocacy.
The Mockingbird Youth Leadership Summit brings together young people who have been in foster care, who have experienced homelessness, or both, and provides an important forum for them to present their proposals for improving the systems that serve these populations to policymakers. A staggering number of these proposals have become reality, through tireless research and reworking, and smart, strategic advocacy on the part of these young people.
Washington State’s laws are peppered with laws and programs that were originally presented in Youth Leadership Summits. The state’s extended foster care system, which allows young people in the foster care system to receive benefits until they turn 21, is the result of a Summit proposal. So too is improved legal representation for young people in the child welfare system. A Summit proposal has also made it easier for young people to have their juvenile records sealed. Perhaps the most visible proposal turned policy from the Youth Leadership Summit has been the creation of the state’s Office of Homeless Youth, one of only a few of its kind in the country.
This year, for the second year in a row, the Summit’s participants presented to both the state Supreme Court Commission on Foster Care and the Advisory Committee of the state Office of Homeless Youth.
Authentic youth engagement is, thankfully, gaining steam as a way to ensure that solutions are grounded in the reality of the lives they are meant to affect. Additionally, authentic youth engagement is a powerful tool to start addressing equity in systems that are often led by those who have the most privilege.
But getting youth engagement right is no easy task, which makes the Youth Leadership Summit that much more impressive. Prior to the Summit, the young people spend countless hours working to craft and research their proposals. They seek out community members to give them feedback so that they can refine their suggestions, adding data and legislative language, addressing weaknesses, and reinforcing strengths. By the time they are presenting to the packed audience at the Summit, they are well prepared to argue for and defend their proposals. And they are equally ready to modify them in the five months before the legislative session starts.
I am sure that every attendee in the room left feeling the urgency of the moment and inspired to redouble their efforts to improve the lives of young people in foster care and homeless youth. As the slogan on the young peoples’ shirts noted: “If not now, when? If not you, who?” Indeed, we cannot wait for change, and we cannot continue to attempt change that is not driven by those whose lives it is meant to affect.