Youth Leadership Initiative Continues Building Community and Leadership Online During COVID-19 Pandemic
After COVID-19 moved into Minnesota, the Youth Leadership Initiative moved online. With large meetings discouraged, schools canceled and eventually a stay-at-home order in place, our high-school aged participants could no longer gather at Wilder Center to build authentic relationships and develop cross-cultural leadership skills. But youth said they need each other and the program more than ever because so many things in their lives were already canceled.
Based on our participants’ needs, we transferred the Youth Leadership Initiative from in-person meetings to video meetings on Zoom. It hasn’t been as simple as moving the in-person components of our program to online meetings. The magic of the Youth Leadership Initiative comes from the relationships that participants build throughout the year, and our youth, volunteers and staff intentionally facilitate community and connection even when we are away from each other.
Youth Participants and Mentors Meet Virtually to Continue Leadership Development
Youth gather on Wednesday afternoons just like they did before the pandemic began, but now they engage with each other from computer screens in their homes instead of meeting in person. They continue to work on service projects to address community issues they feel passionate about, and they are continuing to develop cross-cultural understanding by sharing and learning about other people’s experiences.
Youth mentors, who are returning participants selected to help lead the program, continue their roles. Participants who are working on a project with an artist in residence are figuring out how to complete the project with cameras on their phones since they are not physically present with each other.
Of course, some parts of the program were canceled, including a spring retreat, an in-person inspiration dinner for participants to publicly honor someone who has made an impact on their lives, and a celebration for participants who are graduating from high school. Youth are working on ways to bring the spirit and intent of those events online.
Youth-Led Program Provides Connection and Community During Crisis
Participants often say they like coming to the Youth Leadership Initiative because it feels different than school. When we moved the program online, one of my worries was that transferring the program online would turn it into an assignment instead of a community. We check in regularly with participants to make sure the program is working for them. So far, they are saying things like:
It’s really hard to be separated from what you love. You see everybody’s faces, but you can’t give anybody hugs. I miss being in the YLI office and I miss being able to hug people, but it’s enough that we’re able to check in with each other and work on something that has nothing to do with school.
Many people, including our youth, feel a sense of loss and grief during social distancing. The Youth Leadership Initiative is a way for our students to hold on to a sense of normalcy while they attend school online and miss prom, other activities and potentially even graduation ceremonies. We will continue to foster community and connection online until our youth tell us they need something else.