The Power of Extraordinary Young Adults

The Power of Extraordinary Young Adults

By Sara L. Manewith, MSW, Director, Response Center

I was recently introduced to two extraordinary groups of young people. One came in the form of a community meeting of the Between Friends Learning Collaborative, which brings together providers who work toward ending intimate partner violence. The other is a group of young researchers, exploring social issues important to them as part of JUF's Research Training Internship (RTI).

The researchers, all high school-age young women, spent much of the last year working at DePaul University. This group chose to focus on the experiences of young Jewish women relative to messages about food, eating, health, and body image; they discovered some disturbing trends:

  • Worry about weight and body shape
  • Criticism from family members about their size or weight
  • Mixed messages about food (“eat, eat! --- but don’t get fat!”)

The RTI researchers prepared an impressive monograph on their work and presented it to a community audience with earnestness, expertise, and poise. And they went farther. 

As part of the RTI program, participants also created Individual Action Projects. These included an easily reproducible education poster on “Disordered Eating in the Jewish Community”; one participant wrote a very meaningful prayer for when an act of gun violence occurs, and another met with US Congressperson Jan Schakowsky to share the RTI research and get her thoughts on it as a Jewish woman. The action projects emphasized the young women’s agency and empowerment:  These young researchers learned that they can have an impact on the world around them. I have no doubt of their continuing contributions to knowledge development and social justice. 

The Learning Collaborative brings together professionals who are committed to ending intimate partner violence for training, sharing of best practices, and building collaborative programming. I was fortunate to sit in on a recent training with this group, members of which represent agencies and programs from throughout the state of Illinois. Organizations like the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and Rape Victim Advocates work with young people to teach them about healthy relationships, consent, and love without violence. The discussion centered on understanding trauma and its impact in classroom and school settings, and providing the professionals that work with youth with some strategies to:

  1. recognize the ways that participants/students' traumatic experiences can present themselves in program settings; and
  2. provide simple strategies to help youth "re-ground", re-focus, and be able to effectively participate in programming.

These understandings are particularly important in prevention education because so many youth have direct and personal experience with violence:

  • One in 10 high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend1
  • Violent behavior typically begins between the ages of 12 and 182
  • In 2014, nearly two-fifths of children ages 17 and younger reported being a witness to violence in their lifetimes (38 percent)…and more than two-thirds of children (ages 17 and younger) were exposed to violence within the past year, either directly (as victims) or indirectly (as witnesses)3
  • 1 in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90% of these children are eyewitnesses to this violence4

When educators present programming on these topics, it may be extremely upsetting --- "triggering" in today's common terminology --- to youth and can result in behavior that is disruptive to successful programming.

I was inspired by the group's commitment to learning how to best support the youth with whom they work. Even more, they showed astute insights about the systems and people with whom youth interact – schools, religious institutions, teachers, camp counselors – and how they can unintentionally perpetuate trauma. Adults may minimize what’s behind disruptive behaviors and simply label a child; social institutions may perpetuate family violence by ignoring it, or relegating it to a problem of one particular family. But during the discussion portions of the training, it was clear that these young professionals were examining larger systems and not allowing them a “pass”, but exploring ways to cast a wider net with their work, desiring not merely to prevent violence at the individual level but to change institutions that may harm children and youth.

Youth receiving important knowledge and advocacy; youth creating knowledge and advocacy. Sounds like the right path to me.

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  1., June 29, 2018
  2. Ibid.
  3., June 29, 2018
  4., June 29, 2018