BCM Helps Youth Find Their Voices, Find Their Way

Youth Voice, the participation of young people in decision-making processes that affect them, is a priority for YouthShift.

Finding one’s voice means more than the ability to speak confidently.  For children and youth, it can mean they understand that they have valuable ideas to express, they are worthy of respect and have a place in the world.

Young people need help in finding their voices.  A Baptist Community Ministries-funded organization, Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink), has encouraged youth voice  for nearly a decade.  Rethink was created in the summer of 2006 with 20 youth who worked to ensure youth would have a strong voice in how the schools would be rebuilt post-Katrina.  Rethink has since grown to serve 125 students  through connections with  more than 30 schools.

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Rethinkers find their voices by sharing their stories.  From left are Youth Food Justice Coordinator Chika Konda, Arieanna McKnight, Ron Triggs, Executive Director Karen “KG” Marshall,  Ashton Peters and Kelvin Arzu.

Rethink supports youth in becoming skilled, confident leaders through the process of analyzing their educational experiences.  Rethink achieves this work through a variety of innovative programs including after-school clubs, a food justice collective, internship opportunities and more.  Arieanna McKnight, 18, University of New Orleans urban studies student who has been part of the organization since soon after it began, sums up what it has meant to her.  “I like the opportunities to reach out to other youth and tell our stories.”

Eighth grader Ron Triggs, 13, who attends Edgar Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, says, “Rethink helped me develop more as a person, become more open-minded and look at other perspectives.”

Rethinkers Foundational Beliefs

  • The lives and experiences of young people are important.
  • Young people’s ability to deconstruct their experience and create a new narrative is important.
  • Young people are experts in their own reality which means that they have the capacity to both learn and teach in ways that are transformative.
  • What young people have to say is important.
  • Intergenerational solidarity and collaboration are important.

BCM funds Rethink with a transom grant in the area of public safety.  BCM Program Director for Public Safety Grants, Charmel Gaulden, explains, “Rethinkers develop as leaders who can navigate conflict, problem solve and build positive peer interactions. These are some of the skills critical to ensuring young people are able to maximize educational opportunities and avoid the criminal justice system.”

Rethink Executive Director Karen “KG” Marshall says the organization first started working with middle schoolers.  “As the young people grew, we grew to serve them with programs for older youth.”  Rethink now has programs specifically for 10-14-year-olds, programs for ages 15-25 as well as a youth internship program. Rethinkers learn how to organize and become involved in issues important to them. Rethink clubs meet after school to work on issues such as bullying, school discipline, food access and juvenile justice.  An award-winning HBO documentary features a group of Rethinkers who became advocates for healthier school lunches.   

Finding voice is central at Rethink.  The organization uses the Rethink Circle, from Native American and African customs, which invites all members to sit together as equals and offer their thoughts, opinions and stories.  As its leaders point out, this simple yet profound process helps Rethinkers practice respect, equality, deep listening and strong communication skills.  Says Marshall, “The dialogue of the circle is a way we hold shared power.  We believe young people have the right to speak about things that are important and affect them.”

Rethinking things in a new way is a skill that will stick with youth as they develop.  Rethinker Ashton Peters, 16, who attends Life of Christ Academy, says he has learned how beneficial participating in decision-making has been.

“Rethink has helped me become more responsible, and also got me to look closer at problems and how I could help make things better.”

Rethink’s mission is to support youth of color in becoming thoughtful and capable leaders through the process of rethinking their experiences in their own school communities and taking action to make systemic improvements.