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Youth – At the Heart of Movement Building by Carmen Martin, MPH

Carmen completed her master’s degree in public health with an emphasis in public policy and health care law from the University of Denver in 2000. At the time of writing this article, she recently transitioned from Arts Integrated Resources to Community Benefit and Relations (CB&R) as a Senior Community Health Specialist with Kaiser Permanente. Her hope is to establish a foundation in integrating the arts with public health and generate further interest in exploring the potential of that intersection.

When I attended the Creating Healthy Communities convening hosted at Georgetown University by the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida, I listened to all the debates and presentations of subject matter experts from prestigious universities and organizations. While it was all interesting, what truly inspired me was a young poet who opened the conference. A hip-hop, slam poetry master, around 21 years of age, broke it down for all of us by moving our hearts and expanding our minds. We were mesmerized. No one was on their phone or laptop during those 5-10 minutes. He shared the perils of mental illness and racism in one single poem. 

At the end of the conference, which was highly engaging and thought-provoking, the attendees were asked about the next steps; I offered that youth needed to be involved in this discussion to move a subject matter from a possibility to a movement. After all, the people that I know that use art to achieve public health outcomes, like ending poverty, hunger and racism, are people who happen to be youth. Inspiring change in their communities? Youth – all day, every day... 

What thoughts and visions come to mind when you think of youth? I do come with my own biases as we all do. And while my bias colors my perspective, I also have some real examples to share.  

When I think of youth, I immediately think of energy, hope, dreams and time. Why is time important? They have time to pursue their passions and time to realize their hopes and dreams!  

We talk about youth as change agents and future leaders, but when do adults actually give youth the power to take charge of a movement and do it their way? What if we had youth artists “open” every conference convened for adults? Wouldn’t that be more energizing and inspiring than a plenary speaker? Or would you or your colleague be put off by that? 

A new term was introduced to me by my public health colleague, “adultism.” According to my colleague and confirmed by Wikipedia, adultism is defined as “prejudice and accompanying systematic discrimination against young people.” I see more evidence of this than treating our youth as emerging leaders. 

And why is it important, at this time, to bring youth into this discussion? Because we are hungry for hope right now. Youth have the capacity to build grassroots movements swiftly and stealthily using social media, their time and talent. They are accustomed to using art, visually, verbally, theatrically, to inspire change. They do not approach things from a deficit. They leverage the positive, then unite, mobilize and deploy.  

Not convinced yet? Think of the Peace Corps – an international service organization that sends Americans abroad to help address community needs. Over 200,000 men and women have served in 139 countries since its inception in 1961. The volunteers work on issues such as health education, public health, and farming technologies in their communities for two years. Through this work, they learn about leadership, community building, and what it means to be a global citizen. 

Or consider the World Youth Alliance, with over 1 million members. Youth are deployed to speak at the United Nations, Organization of American States, European Union, and other international organizations to build a global culture that supports social and economic development, human rights, global health, and education. 

If I had one call to action, it would be to have youth testify to policymakers to promote health in your community. We had youth testify for a statewide school breakfast policy and while we helped prepare her, her testimony was the most powerful and moving testimony. Of course, we had doctors and food insecurity subject matter experts testify, but nothing moved legislators as much as the young lady who talked about her experience.  

Would we trust our youth to be true subject matter experts based on their lived experience?  

If we want youth to be change agents and future leaders, we need to allow them to lead. Will you follow? 

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