Youth empowerment: A model of working together

By LAURIE STUART
Posted 12/18/19

LOCH SHELDRAKE, NY — They had only three hours. Three hours to name a social justice issue, to create a T-shirt that offers a positive solution, to determine the financing and marketing of the …

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Youth empowerment: A model of working together

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LOCH SHELDRAKE, NY — They had only three hours. Three hours to name a social justice issue, to create a T-shirt that offers a positive solution, to determine the financing and marketing of the project and to present it to the whole of the assembly.

The exercise was part of the Youth Empowerment Group (YEG) annual entrepreneurial symposium that brought together students from three county school distrcts as part of a learning day, held at Sullivan County Community College on November 20. Working hard through the morning, the mixed-school teams, each with six or seven students, present their T-shirts, financial plans and marketing strategies to an audience of their peers and a panel of judges, who then evaluated the presentation and chose an overall winner. The teams worked with a mentor from the community and a member of the YEG group. 

I was honored to be one of those mentors.

YEG is an innovative group of teenagers in Sullivan County who participate in a weekly youth group and work together in a cooperative business. The program is part of Rural Migrant Ministries (RMM), based out of Poughkeepsie.

The program, according to its mission, “creates a new model of economic opportunity for young people in the Catskills by building [and supporting] a youth-led cooperative business. This business aspires to raise awareness of issues of injustice that affect communities and advocate for a more just world for all.”

In Sullivan County, the program is open to students from Monticello, Liberty and Fallsburg. The cooperative that the group manages is called Bags for Justice (www.bagsforjustice.com). They design, silkscreen and market bags and T-shirts. The program has been in existence for more than 30 years.

Juanita Sarmiento has been the program director for the last 18 months. A lifelong resident of Monticello and recent graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Sarmiento makes sure that the business is working, and that the 15 members of the group are mentored and receive support for issues that they are concerned about. “The students choose what we need to address, and we discuss what they are noticing in the community. We spoke last week on mental-health issues and the concern that some have about safety and kidnapping, in light of recent kidnappings in Ellenville and Newburgh. They feel it could happen to them.”

Beyond social support, YEG provides participants with knowledge about how to live in the real world, Sarmiento said. This includes preparing for college, filing taxes, safety, health, nutrition, business, marketing, working as an entrepreneurial team and graphic design, to name just a few.

Students work and are paid minimum wage for three hours per week. Their cooperative produces several shirt designs a year, including the production of the design from the symposium’s winning group. 

One of the joys of Sarmiento’s work is creating a curriculum for the mandatory unpaid once-a-week meeting. “I get to create the curriculum and reach out and use resources in the community.” In the coming months, Sarmiento will be collaborating with Safe Passage and the youth group there.

“I love to help a young person problem solve and learn. It’s nice to see the light in their eyes when they are so proud of what they have done.”

Sarmiento, who studied and worked in the field of animal and veterinary sciences before discovering a slightly different vocation at YEG, finds the atmosphere at Rural Migrant Ministries to be creative and inspiring. The organization, she said, is “super supportive of employees” and there is always someone to reply to a question, day and night. “The atmosphere is all about ‘how can we problem solve and communicate effectively?’”

It is an example of the benefits for “walking the talk,” as the employment norms mirror the mission of the program: communication, problem solving, financial literacy and action to build a just world.

Mel Priese, a summer intern and YEG Fall 2019 Fellow, echoed that sentiment, saying that expectations for her work, including duties and responsibilities, were extremely clear and that the organization held itself to a 

level on integrity and a high standard. This contributed to the level of prestige that the students experience in being part of the group. “This is not just a place to hang out,” she said. “And the kids are making the decisions and running the business. This is not authoritarianism.

“This gets the youth involved. They are learning how to support the local community; they are learning how to train younger kids. They would have been more comfortable staying home, and instead, they are learning public speaking. YEG is an innovation to the notion of the brain drain.”

Indeed, the issues raised at the symposium were ones that are important in our communities: the lack of high paying jobs, cultural insensitivity, hate, racism, religious intolerance, inequity, poverty, childhood obesity and immigration—issues that are currently in discussion throughout the county.

I was extremely thankful to spend that November 20 morning at the youth symposium. I was reminded that our intentions on what we want to accomplish, coupled with effective communication and finding others to collaborate, is a gift that we can share—a useful gift for and to us all.  

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