Inspiring Leaders

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Polar Plunges Develop YLI Youth Leaders

On a cold weekend in February, teen leaders from Wilder’s Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI) rode five hours to the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota. Their mission: jump into a frozen lake.
“I thought I would never do that ever in my life,” said Erick Pha, a youth leader in his second year in YLI.
The polar plunge and other outdoor activities – showshoeing, cross-country skiing, sliding on icy hills and hanging out in ice caves – were new for many of the youth.
All are students of color from Saint Paul or surrounding urban areas, and few had spent much time exploring the outdoors in February. But the trip was more than an opportunity for youth to experience nature – it was a unique way to enhance leadership skills.
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Motivating Leaders

YLI is a multicultural leadership program for high school students to learn skills and become leaders. Through the program, they increase their understanding of themselves and their cultures and engage with the community. Sixty students are part of the program each year; ten returning participants are peer-nominated to be student leaders.
Leadership retreats like this one help the youth explore leadership concepts and take part in activities that focus on helping students understand who they are as individuals and work effectively with others. And they help keep student leaders motivated.
“If we don’t have leaders who are inspired and motivated to lead, we’re not modeling what we want participants to be learning,” said Nou Yang, director of YLI. “It’s about renewing your passion, your core values and beliefs and what it is you’re doing.”

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Growth through Challenges

For the youth, inspiration came in part because they were taking part in unfamiliar activities. Difficult or new activities can make people feel uncertain and vulnerable, which creates an opportunity to learn and connect with each other.
“It made me realize how much of a risk taker I am,” said Toung Yang, a youth leader in YLI.  She had never skied, snowshoed or done other winter outdoor activities. “It made me realize that I was willing to take on challenges on things I’d never done before.”
While cross-country skiing, YLI youth leader Padah Vang found herself hurrying to follow the person in front of her. Then, she realized that skiers behind her may be trying to follow her. “I was reminded that I have to catch up to the people ahead of me and I also have to encourage people behind me,” she said.
Christine Del Puerto, another YLI student leader, said she most enjoyed the teamwork and how everyone supported each other throughout the retreat. “You can’t be a risk taker if there’s no one supporting you,” she said.
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New Connections

In addition to outdoor activities, participants took part in more formal leadership training in
the evening. In total, the trip involved 10 youth leaders from YLI and 10 students from Girls Getting Ahead in Leadership (GGALs) a youth group of the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment. The groups had met while raising money for the trip, but did not know each other well before the weekend.
YLI and the GGALs group worked in teams on activities designed to improve participants’ facilitation skills. Student leaders in the two programs designed curricula to work with each other involving leadership skills such as public speaking and inclusion.
Roz Anderson, who leads the GGALs group and volunteers with YLI, said the retreat made the GGAL student leaders feel confident that they could bring their new skills to the entire group and affirmed that their work is valuable.
“I think there’s a vulnerability created through trying very new things that allows people to come together and connect,” Anderson said. “I think that was key to why everything worked out as well as it did.”
Nou Yang, YLI director, said both groups gained new skills, built a sense of community as youth leaders and felt re-energized about their leadership.
The trip was funded through donations, gifts and an innovation grant from Sprockets, a network of after-school and summer programs for youth in Saint Paul.  “Without that support, these kids wouldn’t have had this wonderful experience,” Yang said.
 

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Donations and in-kind gifts made our winter retreat possible. We received grants, donations or in-kind gifts from: