Empowering Today's Youth

Today's youth are the future leaders of tomorrow. Pope John Paul II said, " The future starts today not tomorrow." I had the privilege of interviewing two incredible organizations, Give Us The Floor and PeerSpring, who are working to inspire, motivate and empower today's youth. Give Us The Floor and PeerSpring share in the mission to help empower today's youth and are working in their own unique way by reaching out to the community an making a difference to inspire.

Give Us The Floor is a teen based organization based in San Fransisco, California that was founded by Valerie Grison. Their mission is to " to create and support a safe and trustworthy environment where we, as teenagers, know that whatever challenge we struggle with, Give Us The Floor is the place where we will find peers that have faced or are facing the same challenges. This is a place where teens encourage, support each other, and share wisdom. A place where we understand that we share common challenges and that we are not alone." Give Us the Floor gives teens the outlet to express themselves, offer peer-to-peer support, reflection, critical analysis, leadership, career develop, cultural awareness and more.

PeerSpring is an educational technology company based in Santa Monica, California founded by Lee Fox that is working to inspire today's youth through their educational platforms and workshops. Their mission is to empower youth social entrepreneurs to " build 21st century leadership skills through project-based learning [while fostering] critical thinking, conflict resolution, collaboration, citizenship and credibility." PeerSpring works to identify and solve issues facing today's society, design and code technology for social change as well as foster networking opportunities for stakeholders and more.

These two incredibly inspiring women are working to empower today's youth while suppling them with the tools and resources build leadership skills and succeed through peer based learning.

What inspired you to begin the mission of youth-empowerment?

Valerie Grison (Give Us The Floor): I was invited to the preview of the Oakland "WE Day" (Organized by Free The Children). The preview was taking place in the theater of Burton Academic High School. The adult guests were sitting in the front rows and the students were behind us. At some point during the event I turned back to look at the teens and right then was the moment that changed my life. The teens were holding banners. Among those banners was one that said: "We have the power to make a difference". Their eyes were full of hope and joy.
It was a revelation to me: 
• Yes, youth has the power to make a difference
• Making a difference by helping others is fulfilling them, and it is showing them how great each of them can be.
I realized then that what would fulfill me much more than continuing my business career, was to help recreate this level of hope in many other teens' eyes.
I have always believed and known that the teenage years are a difficult and unbalanced period of life. The challenges they struggle with and the ways they handle this time period shape them into the adults they'll become. They need to be able to express themselves safely about their difficulties, supported by people they trust, those who understand them better than anybody else: other teens.
This mission became my present passion.

Lee Fox (PeerSpring): With today's technological advances, anyone -- at any age -- can become a subject-matter expert just by having a connection to the internet. I honestly believe the groundswell of peer-to-peer exchanges across mobile and social platforms is catapulting humankind into a new evolutionary leap. Did you know, for example, that 72% of high school students and 64% of college students want to start their own business?  My inspiration to work in the youth empowerment space largely grew out of "noticing." I noticed there weren't many support systems in place for young innovators. I noticed micro-entrepreneurs were born at younger and younger ages.I noticed non-profits were struggling to give youth volunteer activities that were meaningful. I noticed schools were looking for better ways to incorporate technology into their learning spaces. Out of this noticing, I recently launched PeerSpring.

How do you empower young people to succeed and follow their passions in a positive way?

Valerie Grison (Give Us The Floor): Give Us The Floor's vision is:
If teenagers can share their difficulties freely and safely with their peers, then there won't be any more stigmas or taboo subjects for them to struggle with, and they would believe in themselves and in their future.

Give Us The Floor is "by teens - for teens". 
It is a unique space designed by teens, for teens where they help each other and share their concerns and experiences.

First, teens (ages 13 - 19) choose a role within the organization:
• Ambassador 
• Blogger 
• Creative Team (photographer, filmmaker, artist)
• STEAM Team (Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, Math)
Social Media Team

Then they address and share the challenges they face by collaborating on media-based creations. This enables them to creatively express themselves about what they face while also seeing that within this safe, supportive, collaborative environment, they are not alone. As a result, they have built a very supportive teen-led community.
Teens are also supported by the adult team, who provide resources, facilitate collaborative Google Hangout meetings online to connect teens in different locations, and they offer free workshops with professionals to help build their skills in the areas that interest them.
You can see examples on our Teens' Voices page. Some of the challenges teens have addressed include: anxiety, abuse, bullying, beauty standards, stereotypes, relationship issues, racism, and struggles with self-esteem.
They also take on other responsibilities within Give Us The Floor:
• Get trained as a discussion leader to be even better at supporting your peers during casual discussions or while creating projects.
• Create social media posts to show how teens are facing challenges
• Help put on events that raise awareness and amplify teens' voices

Lee Fox (PeerSpring): At PeerSpring, we use the tool of storytelling to educate and empower young people to find and follow their passions. We know that in order to ignite human potential, youth need to be given a platform where they can matter. It's very powerful to see a "peer" making incredible advances in a field or area of study you care about and realize, "oh really?!?!? I bet I could do that too!" Furthermore, when these stories are weaved into the framework of a classroom, both students and faculty have an opportunity to learn about the cutting-edge advances of our economic, social and environmental challenges which might otherwise never be discussed in the halls of academia. Tapping into the genius of our youth as change-makers (and not just as students) is the best way to ensure they can master the skills for 21st century leadership and global workforce readiness!

What are some ways that young people can connect, feel empowered and network with each other?

Valerie Grison (Give Us The Floor): It depends on how large they want to have an impact:
• A small group of friends can implement support within their group, independently from any organization. They can have a "pact" that stipules that they will not gossip about the other members of the group, and that they will be there for each other.
They can schedule a more formal weekly meeting where they talk about their struggles and share their thoughts and wisdom.
If they'd like to do this but don't know how to make it happen, they can join Give Us The Floor: we give them support for their group to work smoothly. When they feel confident enough, they can decide to stay or leave Give Us The Floor. This is absolutely fine.
• They can join a youth organization that uses an art form or activity they like. This is a good way to connect when you have the same interest(s) and passion.
• If they want to have a bigger impact on their peers, they can join an organization that supports a cause.
• If they feel lonely, isolated, or if they want to help other teens, then the best way is to join a positive and supportive organization like Give Us The Floor.

Lee Fox (PeerSpring): Young people have unlimited ways in which they can connect, feel empowered and network with each other. Social technologies are perhaps the easiest place to start. Anyone who focuses on growing followers can become their own media channel, and there are "social media celebrities" on every platform with millions of followers who might be interested in helping. Almost 90 percent of American teens say they use at least one social media site, and 71 percent of teens say they use at least two sites. Social media empowers young people to create and promote their own content, but it also makes it easy to find peers who are in the same areas of interest.  For youth who are drawn to experiencing things IRL (in real life), there are also lots of student clubs, many of which are cross-campus. One teen we have worked with, Ziad Ahmed, has close to 120 representatives in schools around the world, advocating for his organization's campaigns. Teen programs across libraries nationwide are also highly interested in bringing young people together, and so if you're an enterprising youth, you may be able to get free meeting spaces and support from your local library.

What advise can you give to today's youth?

Valerie Grison (Give Us The Floor): Have faith in yourself: You have some great talent but it might take time to find what you enjoy doing. Very often, your talent is different than your friends' talents or the people around you.  Don't try to compare yourself. Try to find the happy and empowered "you". Sometimes the journey is long and not easy. But it is worth it.
• You have the right to change what you focus on and what you're passionate about throughout your life.  It is predicted that the current generation of teens will have between 4 and 5 different careers during their lifetimes. There are plenty of opportunities to explore and change your mind. I, myself, have followed that path: studying physics, working in film production, advertising, the tech industry and now running a nonprofit for adolescents. And every period was great and fun!
• If you feel lonely, don't extract yourself even more from the world, try to find an organization with a supportive community of peers, a place where you feel welcome by the members and where you can share with them.
• Trust your real friends. If you'd like them to help you, start by asking them how you can help them.
• To me, the current generation of teens is the most curious, smart, and open generation, so embrace your power and superiority!

Lee Fox (PeerSpring): (i) There are other people out there seeking to solve the same problem you are focused on. Find them. Reach out. Ask lots of questions. Learn. (ii) You're authentic voice is powerful enough. Becoming an "expert" doesn't happen overnight, but people will nevertheless respond to your posts if you engage them in "conversation." With social media, for example, you can use #hashtags and @ influencers to increase response rates. (iii) Be bigger than "one." Having a co-founder or team of people with whom you can build your vision increases the chance of success. Finding a mentor who has years of experience can also open doors. (iv) Raise money. Crowdsourcing is an easy way to build some capital. More importantly, it shows prospective partners that you have a market. (v) Reach past your personal network. Organizations (even global enterprises) may be interested in working with youth. Don't be afraid to reach out and explore a potential partnership. (vi) Stay in touch! Use a newsletter, blog or micro-blog to keep people engaged and up-to-date. Your network is everything.

How can others support your cause?

Valerie Grison (Give Us The Floor):
Young people:
• Spread the word about Give Us The Floor among your friends and peers, and share our social media posts
• Regardless of where you live in the U.S., you can join Give Us The Floor to belong to a supportive, teen-led community

Adults & Parents
• Donate
• Volunteer your time to lead a workshop, sharing your expertise with our team of teens (contact: kara@giveusthefloor.org)
• If you are an educator who works with teens, you can help start a Give Us The Floor Club in your school with a group of interested teens. (School Club Advisors receive a stipend for their time.)

You can find out more about Give Us The Floor on our website: www.giveusthefloor.org
Check out our Teens' Voices page where we publish our teens' inspiring creations: www.gutf.us

Lee Fox (PeerSpring): If you're a youth under the age of thirty, sign-up for a free PeerSpring account and build a project! Bring PeerSpring technologies into your school! We offer a "white-label" platform which ensures student data and privacy can be protected from public view. Browse the projects we currently feature, find your favorite one and "help" them -- each project has ways the public can help. If you know a change-maker who should be featured on PeerSpring, email info@peerspring.com, we'd love to learn from you!