Now more than ever: Nonprofits teaching youth leadership, activism

Emma Gonzalez speaking up about gun control

Young people have a voice and, as we saw last week in South Florida, they’re ready to use it. How can we prepare them to be the activists and leaders we’ve forced them to become?

After and even during the shooting at the South Florida high school that left 17 students and faculty dead, student survivors took to social and broadcast media to confront adults about the world we’ve forced them to live in. They challenged adults directly, responding to tweets by prominent figures like conservative pundit Tomi Lahren and even President Donald Trump.

These students aren’t experiencing high school the same way we did, even those of us who graduated five years ago. Today’s high school students are immersed in a divisive political and social culture that, because of social media platforms, they can also contribute to.  If they’re online, they’re seeing the same stories about gun violence, sexual harassment, racial conflict, and other divisive topics that we are. Oh, and I don’t know about you, but we did not have “active shooter”drills when I was growing up.

We can’t keep them from what should be adult-only conversations. In effect, we’ve put the weight of the world on their shoulders. The experience of this generation’s is like no other’s before them. Are we preparing them to be the leaders we need them to be?

There are hundreds of ways young people can find their voice and leadership right now, through sports, music, clubs, theater, scouting, and other extra-curricular activities. But in Austin, there are a number of nonprofit addressing youth leadership preparedness head on.

Amala Foundation – Founded in 2001, Amala focuses on social emotional learning that aims to reach across cultures to provide the next generation of leaders with a model of inclusion, compassion, commitment, and service to their communities. Their programs are open to everyone, and about 80 percent of students who participate receive a scholarship to cover costs. Through programs like the Global Youth Peace Summit, Rise Up Youth Leadership Days, the Diversity Leadership Conference and others that gather young people from Austin, California, Kenya, India and other countries, it promotes increased confidence and authenticity, improves communication skills, and helps students find their role in the world. Learn more here. 

The Summit holds a special place in my heart. Realizing your own true worth is a gift that I have not receive elsewhere.” – Lexis, participant in Austin Global Youth Peace Summit

GENAustin – The Girls Empowerment Network was founded in 1996 by mothers concerned about the drop-off in self-esteem for girls when they reach middle school. To combat that, GENAustin offers a variety of programs, camps, and events open to any girl, with many of them receiving a scholarship to participate. Last school year, GENAustin served 774 girls in grades 3-8 with its clubGEN after-school program. And more than 2,200 girls attended the We Are Girls Conference in the fall. Learn more here.

“In clubGEN, I learned that I have body space and heart space, and if someone tries to get in my space I can ask for help.” — Elementary school clubGEN Member

Latinitas – The times couldn’t be more right for this nonprofit. Founded in 2002, Latinitas empowers girls with their creative and authentic voice and helps express that voice using media, technology, art, and culture. It offers camps, after-school clubs, and events that teach girls skills, build their confidence, and connect them to positive role models. Its signature program, Latinitas Magazine, features content and photography created and published by Latinas they serve.

“When I was younger, I was very shy and stuttered frequently. I felt like I had no voice, so I really liked to express myself through writing and social media, which I discovered through Latinitas in middle school. Because of my love of journalism, I have a physical voice now because I want to be heard. Majoring in journalism not only gives me the chance to be a voice but to also make sure that other people’s voices are being heard as well.” — Latinitas alumni Sara Martinez


African-American Youth Harvest Foundation – Harvest helps some of our most vulnerable kids, those who face challenges like poverty, parent-child separation, poor family involvement, fighting, and drug activity, and empowers them with knowledge of their culture, a connection to their community, and educational and economic stability. Along with its events, it offers support networks for young people, fathers, and young people in the juvenile justice system. It also offers after-school and summer programs to support academic success and training to support economic stability.  Learn more here.

“As a young girl, my time at AAYHF helped me gain the confidence to openly express my opinions and use my voice.” — AAYHF participant


Many Central Texas schools offer programs to help build youth confidence and find their voice. The better prepared young people are to lead with knowledge, compassion, and courage, the better the change we’ll see in our community.



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