30 September 2011

Turning Bad To Good, Then Paying It Forward

And this is part three, the final flashback.  Rock. On.

When I first started traveling and meeting young people, I was shocked by the power and spirit of our youngest Venturers – 12 and 13 year-olds who were articulate, passionate and driven. Now, 10 months later, it seems more like the norm, especially up North. First it was Jessica in Seattle and now it’s three young women in Burnsville, Minnesota (just south of Minneapolis/St. Paul) who have turned their own life struggles into positive change for their communities.

We braved the cold (do you think you know what cold is? Well, unless you’ve been to Minnesota in the winter, complete with blistering wind, I’m going to have to say you don’t) and headed south to The Garage, a Burnsville community center where middle school and high school kids can hang out, hold group meetings, get homework, play video games and throw their own concerts, all entirely free. The center itself was a perfect model for what every community in America should be doing to support at-risk youth; give them a safe space to interact and express themselves in a positive manner.

Minutes after walking through the doors, multiple people approached us with questions and inquiries about their soon-to-be Ventures. The local reps were local celebs, with information they sought. I kept hearing, “I want to start a program for this and I need that,” and “I have this idea but I don’t know what to do next.” I sensed this general attitude among people at The Garage that doing something positive for their community was less the exception and more the rule. “Oh yeah, everybody is in something that does good stuff,” one girl told me. “Why wouldn’t we be?”

After fielding a solid 30 minutes of questions I sat down with three of the local superstars to learn more about their Ventures. The first, Latinos Unidos, was a group set up to offer an outlet and community support for Latino youth in the community. “It’s a great way to build a sense of togetherness and understanding between us,” the current leader told me. “I think it’s so important to have that outlet, and I want to give that to people here.”

The second, called Girl’s Support Group, was set up for young women in the community to have a place to air their problems and differences while offering a safe space to share their own personal struggles. “I’ve been through a lot – probably more than most 30-year-olds and I’m only 12. I had so much anger and I needed an outlet – a place I could share what I was bottling up inside. This lets me do that, and it feels good to offer the same to the rest of the girls here. We do our best to avoid drama, but hey, we’re teenage girls. It’s normal,” she said. “At least this way we’re dealing with it.”

The third, formerly called Show Stoppaz (they are currently coming up with a new name and seem to be working through a Prince-like state of “formers” and simple, “the group”) came around to offer a positive outlet for young girls and boys to both express themselves and gain ownership over something. “I’ve been through a lot too,” the current leader said, “and the only time I felt happy for a long while was when I was dancing. A lot of other people around here feel the same way, and it also just feels good to be looked up to by people and know that what I’m doing is helping them.” Their next goal? Start competing across the state and across the country.

More than anything, The Garage shows exactly what happens when you tip the attitudes of an entire community. Expectations change and young people respond, demanding more of not just themselves, but everyone around them. Indeed, it has definitely become a culture of positive action, and I hope it serves as inspiration for other groups to give youth the same opportunities.

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