Youth are the Leaders of Today! Why Youth Engagement Matters

Melissa Golladay, Director, Professional Leadership Exchanges and Youth Engagement

Youth are often referred to as “the future,” or the next generation of leaders. At Partners of the Americas, we firmly believe that youth are leaders in the present. They are dynamic members of our society who actively contribute to the economic, cultural, and social development of our communities.

As such, building leadership, mutual understanding, and a commitment to service is crucial to helping youth serve their communities today and in the future, and for building the present and future leadership of the Partners network. Youth exchange programs have been a hallmark of Partners for 50 years. Youth leadership and exchange programs have fostered the growth of volunteers and volunteer-led programs across the network. In the past 10 years, Partners has engaged over 900 youth from 15 countries through the Youth Ambassadors and Youth Leaders programs

Through youth exchange programs, Partners uses our specialized YouthLead curriculum to build leadership skills, build mutual understanding among youth of different cultures, develop a commitment to service, and provide opportunities for long-term engagement.

  • Leadership Development: Partners builds leadership capacity through unique interactions with community leaders, helping youth explore service and collaborative leadership through discussion and workshops, and by allowing youth to exercise leadership in different ways.
  • Mutual Understanding: Partners teaches youth how to take cues and tackle issues together. By building mutual understanding within and between groups of youth, Partners prepares youth as global citizens, allowing them to work with others in diverse cultural environments.
  • Commitment to Service: Youth learn about service, learn to recognize leadership in volunteers they engage with, and reflect deeply on service to think critically about the work and its purpose.
  • Long-term engagement: After participating in the program, youth are true leaders in the sense that they know their own self, ask thoughtful questions or share ideas with others, and collectively take action on global problems. They have a deep capability to connect with others and are inspired and motivated to turn their passions and talents into actionable solutions. Partners promotes long-term engagement by providing tools, resources, and support through the entire program.

Youth Alumni from Partners’ programs have grown to take on multiple leadership roles within the Partners Network and within their communities. In Colombia, youth alumni founded the Youth Colombian Leaders Network, which works with Partners’ Chapters and other local organizations to implement the youth-founded PLAYLEE program to provide free English classes to low-income youth. In Venezuela, youth alumni have raised money from the Walt Disney Foundation and local businesses to support the Encuadernate Project to donate school supplies to at-risk primary school students. In the U.S., a youth alumnus in Michigan developed a fundraiser for his local hospital by setting up a gift wrapping station at the mall. When he eventually left for college, he trained his little sister and other volunteers to lead and sustain the project. In 2013, youth alumni in Colombia and Argentina won competitive grants of $25,000 and $17,000, respectfully, from the U.S. Government to support projects that they started through Partners’ Youth Ambassadors program.

In Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, and other countries, youth leaders have formed country and regional networks, implemented sustainable programs, and worked directly with Partners Chapters to have greater impact. Partners’ regional network, the RED2021, helps youth to further connect by leading social media campaigns that promote the power of youth volunteers in Latin America and around the world.

The impact of youth exchange programs goes beyond the youth themselves and their local communities. The programs have served to further connect and build capacity of volunteers within the Partners network. The programs allow for opportunities for organizational development of Chapters and professional development of volunteers working within education and youth leadership. Partners has seen increasing interest and engagement of Chapters to recruit, support, and further engage youth participants. In addition, the youth exchange programs have provided opportunities for Chapters to open up beyond the traditional partnership relationship, building relationships with new Chapters and countries as they host youth from or send youth to new countries.

Over the next 50 years, the YouthLead curriculum will pave the way to providing more opportunities for young people to build their leadership skills, build mutual understanding, strengthen their commitment to service, and find long-term opportunities for personal and professional growth within Partners. Our vision is to provide ongoing opportunities for youth of all ages to deeply connect with Partners, helping them grow and giving them space to give back to Partners and to their local communities.