Our ReACTion: The Youth Council At Work

Sally Gardner, ACT’s Operations Manager recently sat down for a chat on Microsoft Teams with Molly Klein, our former Development and Program Associate. Molly spent much of the past year building and coordinating our Youth Philanthropy Council, often with Sally’s support, and the two wanted to have a conversation about their experiences working with some of our impressive local young people. 

[6/22/2022 11:07 AM] Sally Gardner:
Hi Molly! I’m wondering how YOU would best describe the Youth Council to someone who has never heard about it? I guess I’m also thinking about how YOU as the creator/facilitator/and manager of this council felt at the beginning of the year, and how you felt at the end of the year?

[6/22/2022 11:14 AM] Molly Klein
I would say that the Youth Council is a program designed by youth for youth with the purpose of providing Alexandria youth the decision-making power and funding to address key youth issues within the community. It is an opportunity for young leaders to be involved in philanthropy, improving the lives of residents, and connecting with key stakeholders to inform youth initiative decisions from the ground up. On the other hand, it’s also just a great opportunity for ACT and other community leaders to provide “a seat at the table” when it comes to discussions that impact young people, and provides them with an opportunity for fellowship and professional development.

At the beginning of the process, I really was cautiously optimistic. I’m not sure if the program had legs or not but I think the driving factor was that I and the advisory council really, really believed in its purpose. Even if we had NO idea what the product would look like, we definitely had the vision of what it means to have youth at the table. By the end of this year, the word that comes to mind more than anything else is “humbled”. I understood that the program would require a lot of teaching but didn’t realize how much learning went into it – both from partners and the youth themselves. By the end of the program, I felt more like a collaborator than a manager of the program. It was just really fun to see the youth shape the Youth Council to fit their vision too.

[6/22/2022 11:18 AM] Sally Gardner
How do you think the Council’s interest grew over the semester? From the students’ perspective and from you as their “collaborator.”

[6/22/2022 11:23 AM] Molly Klein
I think the interest was directly tied to relationship-building aspects. The more that the members got to know and trust each other, the greater the engagement in each of the meetings. The team work activities also helped with that. Even though no one really LOVED the “homework,” it gave them an opportunity to collaborate independently of me to put together the Discovery Project – and I think it gave them a lot of pride to present something that was completely driven by their work.

[6/22/2022 11:25 AM] Sally Gardner
There were so many ways that these students were impressive; what impressed you most about them as the Youth Council?

[6/22/2022 11:32 AM] Molly Klein
I think one of the things that struck me most is the diversity of experience. Yes, our group was extremely diverse in all ways but we really had a microcosm of Alexandria contained in this group. And with that came a lot of different perspectives and I was impressed by how honest and profound the responses were. There were issues that were identified that I hadn’t even thought of, and they were able to identify exactly where and why these issues occurred. There were so many moments during the year where I had to remind myself that these were youth and not seasoned adults in our field because in a lot of ways, they’re just wise beyond their years. Another part that impressed me was their extreme schedules. Some students would be responding to texts or emails in the early morning hours or rushing to make it to monthly meetings because they had sports meets, job responsibilities, extracurricular events, club meetings, and all sorts of commitments. Despite a schedule that would run most of us ragged, they always made an effort to show up even if they didn’t have a lot left to give.

[6/22/2022 11:33 AM] Sally Gardner
The Youth Council, like all newly formed diverse groups, had a couple of challenges.  Did those challenges fall under this year’s programming and project? You mentioned that no one really “LOVED the homework,” but in the end they rose to the challenge and performed very well in front of many dignitaries from the City of Alexandria. Would you agree?

[6/22/2022 11:38 AM] Molly Klein
I would say that the biggest challenge we encountered encompasses a lot of the bumps on the road and that was timing. Because of these incredibly busy schedules, it was very hard to find a day each month where every single member was free. The other individual projects that needed to be completed on their own time between meetings was difficult too because it usually got lost in the shuffle of extracurriculars, homework, college applications, travel, etc. I would say that finding a student in 9-11th grade that has 10 hours a month to dedicate to this program was very difficult. That being said, they did definitely rise to the challenge and I was impressed by how dedicated members were in completing assignments around their busy schedules. I think time management was a skill that all Youth Council members had an opportunity to develop this year and we learned together that we all needed to remain flexible during our meetings. Sometimes it was just a rough month for everyone and we needed to scrap the homework template and meeting agenda in favor of an honest brainstorming session.

[6/22/2022 11:42 AM] Sally Gardner
There were so many delightful surprises that I witness throughout the semester, what surprised you the most about the Council?

[6/22/2022 11:48 AM] Molly Klein
I would say the biggest surprise and the most humbling experience was the feedback we received from the youth over time. I said this in staff meetings but it was really hard to get a feel for whether the youth enjoyed what they were doing or whether it was just another commitment that they had on an exhaustive list. I was constantly stressing about ways to make the Youth Council more engaging and fun, while also adhering to time restraints while also trying to be productive while also trying to give opportunities for professional development etc. etc. The kids had good poker faces, some days it was hard to tell what they got out of it. At the end of the Discovery Project presentations and in the exit survey, I was really surprised by the overwhelming positivity that the youth felt regarding the Youth Council. Of course, there was some critical recommendations and places that need to be tweaked but the fact that everyone wanted to continue on next year was heartening. Also, just seeing the youth engaged in conversations and talking a million miles an hour about ideas they have for next year after their wonderful presentations was, I think, something that surprised all of us. I had no idea that the Youth Council made them feel like they really had a voice in the community and I think they were surprised that so many important figures waited quietly to hear what THEY have to say…and actually listened. What do you think, Sally?

[6/22/2022 2:14 PM] Sally Gardner
I would agree wholeheartedly with you, Molly. I do think that your availability and your willingness to listen to them gave them assurance that they were stakeholders in this Alexandria community. My biggest surprise was their commitment and their desire to continue. I think your attentiveness to relationship building — amongst the Council and between you and the students, and I would include myself here — was helpful and encouraging.

Finally, and I think you’ve already touched upon it, but what was the biggest inspiration you received from this Youth Council? I would have to say I was inspired by how they incorporated your guidance and genuine care for them into a meaningful presentation to the Youth Council Symposium. That was a fine culmination of lots of work in a very short time.

[6/22/2022 6:32 PM] Molly Klein
I agree, I think the final presentations were the biggest source of inspiration for me. They represented the culmination of an entire semester worth of effort on their part and it was nice to see so many personalities come out through the presentations. You could see each person’s contribution and careful concern for the issue they presented. It was nice to see that inspiration pass from them to all those in the audience and beyond.



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