Youth as experts and emerging leaders

five youth wearing waders in a stream and holding nets

Youth are at the center of their own program design and implementation. “Youth as experts” is the guiding philosophy behind Northside Safety NET. This means that young people are the experts of their own lived experiences and these lived experiences hold as much value as any degree.

Northside Safety NET interns and Environmental Initiative staff recently celebrated the conclusion of Northside Safety NET’s pilot year. What a year it has been; a year full of positivity, opportunity, learning, and growth.

Getting swept up in the day-to-day chaos of planning and executing a brand-new program makes it difficult to see the evolution and to absorb the significance of the work. Slowing down to reflect on the past eight months, both as individuals and as a team, the multi-faceted, positive impact of Northside Safety NET is unequivocal.

Last fall, we worked with partners at Project Sweetie Pie and the City of Minneapolis to recruit, interview, and select members of the first cohort of interns. The interview process surfaced our dedicated and insightful job coach Clyde Quarles, and nine bright, dynamic, and curious young people. The Northside Safety NET team committed to learn about environmental careers and grow into budding young professionals. Along the way we built a community with each other, our partners, and the earth.

From their first day in November to their last day in August, Northside Safety NET interns learned a diverse set of skills from tree identification and invasive species removal to solar panel installation and rain garden maintenance. They even learned how to construct a canoe by hand. Interns fostered a safe space to explore and learn about themselves and their community. Yet, these skills and relationships present only a sliver of the benefits realized by Northside Safety NET interns, Environmental Initiative staff, and program partners.

The “youth as experts” philosophy provides a unique opportunity for reciprocal education between young people and Northside Safety NET partners. For example, interns learned about the technical aspects of urban pipe sheds from the City of Minneapolis (i.e., how water siphons off streets and flows to the Mississippi River). In turn, the City of Minneapolis learned from Northside Safety NET interns about trouble spots (ex. areas with standing water) in North Minneapolis. As a result, interns and partners were able to co-create infrastructure project ideas combining both technical knowledge and lived experience.

With this philosophy, learning doesn’t happen one way—from the adult “experts” to “inexperienced” youth—it works across perspectives and power dynamics. It is a direct reflection of Environmental Initiative’s mission to “catalyze collaboration across perspectives, power, and systems for social equity and environmental health.”

Youth and children together account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s population. To achieve an inclusive, just, and thriving world for all beings, we must create a meaningful space at the table for young people’s ideas and expertise. The pilot year of Northside Safety NET proved to do just that. We are looking forward to continuing our work with the interns to build Northside Safety NET into a permanent and sustainable youth program.