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How to Raise a Changemaker

Getting kids involved in advocacy

Malia Jacobson

Published on: November 25, 2019

Youths participating in My Purple Umbrella’s Allies in Action program
Youths participating in My Purple Umbrella’s Allies in Action program

It was nearly dark, but Tacoma’s Old Town Park was busier than usual. Wearing jackets and boots, my children ran to join their friends on the playground, cutting a path through swirling October leaves. But we weren’t there to play. A few minutes later, the kids clustered around picnic tables at the park’s edge. Lit by smartphone flashlights, they gave impassioned pitches for their favorite charities and voted on how to donate their pooled funds. Some 30 minutes later, they’d reached consensus — and passed an important early lesson in advocacy with flying colors.

It was the second meeting of South Sound 100 Kids (SS100Kids), a new group that gives young children a chance to learn advocacy skills and expand their giving power. Cofounder Sarah Heavin, a Tacoma mom of two young children, helped start the group this summer to provide school-age children with a platform for advocacy. “We were really impressed with the group South Sound 100 Women and how collective giving could create a bigger impact. And there aren’t a lot of advocacy opportunities for school-age kids. Our goal is to have the group be completely child-run.”

So far, the kids have stepped up. At the October SS100Kids meeting, adults mainly helped with admin while the group members, some as young as 6, did most of the talking. Adults answered questions, offered support when needed and generally maintained order. As it turns out, this type of kid-led, adult-supported advocacy works well; research shows that advocacy training helps kids more effectively engage policymakers and bring about changes.

Youth advocates aren’t just changing their world. They’re also changing themselves. In one study, youths ages 9–22 who participated in advocacy training for preventing youth obesity increased their self-efficacy — their belief that their own actions could make a difference — and motivation. They also built skills such as assertiveness, learned how to access resources, picked up healthy habits such as exercising more, and extended social support to others.

Intrigued? The Puget Sound region is rich with opportunities for kids to learn and practice advocacy. Whether your child is passionate about politics, queer and trans issues, health care, the environment or all of the above, there’s ample space to make an impact. The world is waiting.

Advocacy opportunities for kids of all ages

Healthy Gen Online Youth Advocacy Training

Research shows that youth advocates have more impact when they’ve participated in advocacy training. But transportation limitations and other access barriers can make it hard for some kids to participate in groups or clubs. Julie Peterson, executive director of Seattle’s Healthy Generations, created the Healthy Gen Online Youth Advocacy Training, a series of four video vignettes that provide on-demand advocacy training and resources for youths who want to engage more effectively with their state legislators.

GSLEN, Washington state chapter

Founded by K–12 educators in 1990, GSLEN promotes safe, inclusive school environments for LGBTQ youths through teacher trainings, conferences, events and activism. In community-based chapters with strong local ties, members work to support LGBTQ-affirming public policy in local schools; members also join a nationwide network of members in 43 chapters across the country.

Opportunities for younger kids

West Sound Wildlife Shelter

Engaging kids’ natural love of animals is an easy way to get started with advocacy. The West Sound Wildlife Shelter treats and releases 1,000 animals each year and helps people learn to live in harmony with native wildlife, from turtles to owls to the pesky neighborhood racoon. One of the simplest ways to get involved is by calling 206-855-9057 to report an injured animal; kids can also organize donation drives and class visits.

Allies in Action

Now in its eighth year, Allies in Action’s anti-bullying after-school programming promotes safe, inclusive communities for all students, including queer and trans youths and those with marginalized identities. The program helps kids as young as 7 learn to be allies, or advocates who stand up for others. Research shows that this type of peer advocacy is one of the most effective ways to stop bullying.

Opportunities for older kids

The Mockingbird Society

Youth advocacy is central to The Mockingbird Society’s mission to end youth homelessness and transform foster care. Its large network of youth advocates, many of whom have lived through foster care and housing instability, learn to interact with policymakers, organize events and build impactful networks with other changemakers. Through regular meetings and events, such as their Youth Advocacy Day on January 31, 2020, youth advocates learn to channel lived experiences into meaningful change.

The Breakfast Group’s Intensive Youth Engagement Advocacy Program (IYEAP)

Founded in 1976, The Breakfast Group is an African American men’s organization providing academic support to teen boys from underrepresented minority groups. Its Intensive Youth Engagement Advocacy Program (IYEAP) offers advocacy training and support for minority boys in grades 9–12, with an emphasis on academic achievement, cultural connections, community involvement and job training.

Seattle Foundation Youth Grantmaking Board

King County high school sophomores, juniors and seniors can help shape the future of philanthropy by snagging a seat on the foundation’s Youth Grantmaking Board. This group of about 20 teens actively participates in the philanthropic cycle: identifying areas of need in local communities, learning from subject-matter experts about the issues, developing requests for proposals, evaluating funding requests and making recommendations to Seattle Foundation leadership.

Can’t find a group that fits your child’s advocacy agenda? Consider doing what SS100Kids founders did — start your own. At its first two meetings, SS100Kids raised $270 for the Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. More importantly, young kids in our community — including mine — practiced advocating for what matters most to them while adults practiced another important skill: listening.    

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