Who Has the Power?: Teen Wisdom for Transformative Change

This Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, we sat down with a local high schooler in our youth prevention programming to get his own thoughts about his learning experiences in various parts of the program. A great deal of the Say Something Youth Initiative curriculum is focused around relationships—how to form and maintain healthy ones and how to best figure out your needs and the needs of others—a theme that is underscored this month. 

Angel, a 17 year old, graduating Easthampton High School senior, first participated in our Say Something Youth Initiative Summer Leadership Academy in 2021. In the beginning he had his doubts about the program. “But that initial thought kind of just wiped away after the first day,” he said. “As we started going in-person … it gave me more connections and bonds that I probably wouldn’t have had before then.”

Summer Leadership Academy is a two-week program where young people have the opportunity to build community, grow their leadership skills, and collaborate on social justice projects with peers who are interested in the same type of work. 

“I found a way to cope with the stress of school, and that was by talking to people and learning more about stuff that I would have never thought about [before],” Angel said. “The openness that I have in the Academy and the Advisory Group made it kind of feel like I was home.”

That can be quite a different experience than what many young people face in school. One difference he noted in particular was the way that adults in the Say Something Youth Initiative interacted with the youths.

Challenging Adultism

“I think that the way that every adult that I’ve seen in the Academy or the Advisory Group has presented themselves—how they talk to the kids—they show that they understand that we are maturing,” he said. “They understand that we have the capacity to think for ourselves, but we also have a childish-like side.” 

Talking about adultism and how it impacts young people is built into the programming for Advisory Group, the afterschool portion of Say Something Youth Initiative. Angel defined adultism as the adult tendency to undermine youths’ knowledge and experiences. 

“The older generations are wise—they have knowledge, they’ve lived the life that we are striving for,” he explained. “But the younger generations have passion and have ideas, and I think that having that pre-existing knowledge and that life that you lived, and having new ideas in the same position is very, very hard to have. So I think that’s when adultism comes in, ‘cause adults feel [like] ‘I’ve lived through it, I know, so you listen. You were just born, let me teach you.’” 

Angel was clear to point out that he and his peers are not opposed to learning, or to being wrong, for that matter. In fact, he described the ideal adult ally to youth as someone who listens, supports youth, and also provides constructive pushback against their ideas so they are given space to grow. Those trusted relationships then allow for modeling of healthy behaviors, including accountability, in relationships with power dynamics and increase support for youth in building their own platonic, professional, and romantic relationships.

The Power of Teen Leadership

With programs like Advisory Group, teens are invited to take part in actively shaping the curriculum that is taught to students in the Say Something Youth Initiative classroom programs throughout the year. Becoming a youth leader was, at times, equal parts exciting and frightening for Angel, who has experienced a lot of personal growth throughout the process. 

“No matter what the outcome was,” he said, “no matter if it worked or not, it gave me joy of being able to spend time with people … who understood me and people who wanted to understand me.”

Angel believes that understanding emotions and working toward self acceptance is crucial for his younger peers and advises them not to count themselves out—even if adults do.

“In being labeled ‘bad’ … [it] creates a place for us that isn’t good. It creates an angry place, a sad place, a misunderstood place, and I think that behind all that fighting, behind all that anger is just a kid who wants to be himself.”

A core tenet of Say Something Youth Initiative programming is the belief that when youth have the opportunity to learn skills to manage their emotions and work toward self-compassion and understanding, transformational growth is possible for young people. Angel echoed this, saying: “If they have the right mindset and if they have certain guidance or even if they have the will themselves to do it, it turns into ‘I’m angry, let me pick up a pen and pencil. Let me pick up a book. Let me pick up a job, let me start working, let me start doing this [instead of fighting].’”

Empowerment and Empathy

Angel himself has put the skills learned at Say Something Youth Initiative to work beyond the classroom—and the first place he started was within his own family. With his younger brother, who is entering the tough “tween” years, Angel provides context and explains why the behaviors his brother exhibits might not be the best or most effective for him, rather than admonishing or belittling him. 

A yellow and orange speech bubble with the words "The more I went to the Academy, the more I understood the people around me". with the Say Something Youth Initiative logo in the bottom left corner.

He shared, “The more I went to [Leadership] Academy, the more I understood the people around me, and the more I understood the experiences that other people have gone through aren’t the same as mine. And it made me more open and more empathetic to the people around me.”

This, Angel said, is a key piece of the curriculum that he believes everyone could benefit from learning. In particular, he spoke to the importance of focusing on understanding one’s own emotions first, working to understand the emotions of a friend or family member, and THEN looking toward a romantic relationship.

“It takes time to develop,” he said. “It takes understanding, it takes pain and anger and happiness and joyfulness all together to keep a relationship, and that is something that Leo [Safe Passage staff] taught me in our Relationships topic in the Summer Leadership Academy.” 

Changing the Narratives, Changing the Culture

Angel has the unique perspective of experiencing Easthampton High School both before and after the implementation of the Say Something Youth Initiative programming, launched in 2020. While he acknowledged that things are still growing, he expressed hope for the future students of the school.

“And as it grows,” he said, “it’s gonna change the minds of everyone who follows. And I believe, from my experiences, it’s for the better. People can have their own opinions, but I think it’s for the better that more people have an understanding of relationships and leadership and what’s going on today in the country. If they actually learn all of that stuff, I feel it could really change the culture that we have in the school.” 

As to his own future beyond high school, Angel feels that the skills and support he has gained  from the Say Something Youth Initiative has helped him understand that he doesn’t have to have it all figured out yet. 

“Everyone who is graduating high school is expected to know exactly what they want after. But [Say Something Youth Initiative staff] helped me understand that I’m 18, I’m still developing until 25, and I’m still figuring myself out … The amount of things that I can do now, that I didn’t think I could before, because of the group is a lot more. I’ve gotten a lot more information and a lot more support in the ideas of what I have for the future.”

If you are or know someone who is a youth looking for support in building healthy relationships, you can learn more about our Say Something Youth Initiative here and visit love is respect for more resources.

Say Something Youth Initiative is a partnership between Safe Passage and Community Action Pioneer Valley offering Safe youth-focused violence prevention curriculum designed to meet the unique needs and strengths of the Easthampton High School community, especially LGBTQ+ students. It contains three key components: a classroom curriculum for 9th and 10th grade students, an Advisory group that meets afterschool, and a two-week Summer Leadership Academy).

Seven smiling individuals of various identities, each in their own zoom box, dressed in orange and holding their hands into the shape of hearts. The words "TDVAM2023 #BeAboutIt" in the bottom right corner and the logo for Say Something Youth initiative in the bottom left corner.