"Honestly, it was a life-changing experience."
"[The conference made me ask] myself some questions about society that galvanized me into action."
"Some of our youth have always been behind the movement, and have always fought for their rights. They now have a name for their continued efforts."
These were the kinds of comments the Children's Defense Fund heard again and again from the high school and college-aged young people who recently participated in CDF's 2003 National Conference in Washington, D.C. Training a new generation of mentor-leaders to stand for children is one of CDF's top priorities, and we always find young people to be especially passionate, dedicated, and compelling advocates for themselves with their first-hand perspective on children's needs and first-hand stake in the outcome. The youths we met at our conference were no exception. As they had the chance to network with and learn from one another, their collective talent and power became clear to each of them too.
Young people came to the conference from over 40 states and more than 80 after-school and youth development programs, high schools, colleges and universities, preventive services, job training, immigrant services, and juvenile prevention programs-all together well over 1,100 youths from a wide range of socioeconomic, age, gender, racial, and national backgrounds. They left the conference with a new understanding of the key role young people can play in the Movement to Leave No Child Behind®.
The young conference participants attended workshops on organizing, advocating and service. As part of a special Wednesday in Washington(tm), hundreds of youths met with their Representatives, Senators, and/or their staffs, urging them to put children first by supporting Head Start, Medicaid, and CHIP and rejecting tax cuts for the wealthy. The young people shared deeply compelling personal stories to show their Representatives and Senators the real impact of these federally-funded programs and the importance of keeping them. The Capitol Hill visit also included a rally where one of the most powerful speakers was Maceo Torres-Trujillo, a 9-year-old student from New York City. Later that day the young people attended CDF's Presidential Candidates Forum, where they were able to hear all nine Democratic candidates talk about their priorities on children's issues.
Another highlight of the conference was a session on SHOUT, the Student Health Outreach Program, and SPROUT, the Student Poverty Reduction Outreach Program. SHOUT and SPROUT train students to educate families about public benefits available to them; SHOUT participants help families enroll in the Children's Health Insurance Program, and SPROUT participants teach families about available income tax credits. Students left this session eager to get involved and spread these programs into their own schools and communities. One of the last sessions of the conference for young people was a student Town Hall Forum called "No to War, Yes to Children." There, author and commentator Tavis Smiley, writer and professor Sonia Sanchez, and peace activists Damu Smith and Rajeev Kasat spoke about peace, the war, and youth involvement-sharing insights and connections the audience found "amazing" and "incredible" and leaving them even more motivated and inspired to return home and get to work.
During the Civil Rights Movement, children and youths like Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine played key roles in helping to change history. Young people are poised to do it again in the Movement to Leave No Child Behind. It was wonderful to see this new generation's commitment to the Movement to Leave No Child Behind, and their enthusiasm and passion inspired the rest of us. As one more conference participant said of working directly alongside other young people: "Loving the children, watching them suffer, you don't forget. And the memories fuel the fight."
(To learn more about how young people can become involved in the Movement to Leave No Child Behind, visit www.childrensdefense.org.
Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind? and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
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