Blog: Pathways to Aspen – The Post-Convening Youth Leader Perspective

This blog is the first following the Fall 2014 OYIF Convening. We interviewed Maria Valdez, a Community and Opportunity Youth Advocate based in Austin, Texas, who shared with us her experiences from the Convening, and most importantly, how she is applying what she’s learned to her work in her community.

By Maria Valdez, Community and Opportunity Youth Advocate, The Austin Opportunity Youth Collaborative

Tell us about what you do and how your organization fits in the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund community.

I work for a backbone organization (Workforce Solutions) on the Austin Opportunity Youth Collaborative as their Community and Opportunity Youth Advocate. My work is all about sustaining relationships with local non-profits and organizations that serve Opportunity Youth and integrating youth voice into the AOYC’s mission and vision. My organization holds youth involvement with decision making at the table in high regards, and have dedicated themselves to have youth with us at our once a month meetings to understand where gaps are and how we may better address pathways to work and education. I engage youth within the community to get involved and have their voice heard, and realize that the community has a support system for them.

What was one lesson, insight, or idea that resonated with you the most in the month since the end of the OYIF Fall 2014 convening?

An insight that really resonated with me came from a panel session with Dorothy Stoneman; she articulated that youth should be utilized in this spectrum of work for their intelligence. This really hit home for me, because I feel many do not recognize the fine line between utilizing youth for their newfound ambitions and aspirations and exploiting their story of hardships and barriers for organizational benefit. There comes a point where you must reevaluate what your motive is and having the proper intentions to hone in on the intelligence that youth have to offer as well. Disenfranchised youth are far more than their stories, they are trailblazers in breaking out of detrimental cycles cause by social adversity and possess the knowledge of what works in the community and how we can better support their dreams.

What have you been doing differently in Austin as a result of your time in Aspen? How else do you plan to apply the learnings from the convening back home?

One thing that I have been doing differently is utilizing Youth Leaders across the OYIF network for feedback on my means of engaging youth in the community and how to get more individuals involved. By sharing our ideas on what appeals to youth and how to address their development as professionals when guiding them to meaningful employment and education, they have become a great tool for my work. Moreover, after learning the important role employers’ play with our initiatives, I hope to enhance the number of partners at our local internship program here in Austin to generate more opportunity for youth struggling to attain experience in fields of their interest.

Given your role as a youth advocate, what were the benefits of coming together with your peers from other the other communities from across the country?

I feel that the biggest benefit of working with youth leaders from other communities is insight on identifying what has been successful under this umbrella of work. Many communities have similar implementation methods and I believe the idea of sharing our experiences, failures and successes will help us all reach our goals in the long run.

Looking to the future, what is your hope for the role that OYIF Youth Leaders can play at the Convening one year from now?

I would hope that in the OYIF Fall 2015 convening youth leaders could play larger roles as facilitators for sessions. This will allow us to utilize our intelligence and skills to make a very big statement that youth have immense value in the OYIF community.