Tamara Johnson on the Power of Youth Voice

by Corinna West

At Alternatives this year I went to a a youth caucus and two workshops. At the caucus, about eight youth stood up and told about their involvement with the mental health system and how they are working with the consumer movement to make things better for other young adults. The most memorable moment was when one person asked, “Well, what do you do about the youth that are involved in drugs and gangs and the justice system?”

Stephanie Lane, one of the caucus leaders said, “You’re looking at them. Those are the youth that have just been talking to you. What do do with them is bring them to meetings and give them a voice and help them get involved.”

The next day in the Youth N Action workshop Stephanie told the story about bringing youth to the surgeon general’s meeting on young adult mental health issues. She said, “We learned a lot from that meeting. Because there just a room full of people in suits and there wasn’t a spot on the agenda for us to talk. They were just talking with a lot of terminology all day long and we didn’t know what they were talking about or how we could contribute. The next day the youth boycotted, and we went to the museums in Washington, D.C. That night we all sat down and the youth drafted a youth manifesto. All the people in the meeting were asking, ‘Where did the youth go?’ Well, they walked out because they weren’t being heard. There was no space for them. Then on the last day of the meeting they came in and delivered their manifesto. The whole room went silent. Then, after a while, by himself, the surgeon general started clapping. That was the beginning of our youth movement.”

Tamara Johnson, one of the young people involved with that program, told about being heard. ¬†She said, “Sometimes we just take over the agenda of meetings. We don’t mean to, but when you have a lot of people talking about how to serve youth, sometimes we get up and say, ‘It’s not like that.’ Then they have to listen. It just shuts the room down because our voice is so powerful. Because we know what it’s really like, and when we start talking, people really listen.”

Let’s turn up the volume. Let’s make this happen here in Missouri.

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