August 1, 2018

What we have to gain when we listen to our community’s youth

This Cleveland nonprofit empowers teens and pre-teens through engaged learning and discussion

At a recent event, EYEJ participants created superheroes who will defend and support their communities. Photo courtesy of EYEJ

Launched in 2013, EYEJ works to empower Cleveland’s youth. As part of our commitment to youth, we have developed interactive discussions for achieving social justice. Specifically, our Discussion Series serves close to 1,000 youth and is focused on communication, development of social and emotional learning, and critical thinking.

While we are focused on youth, 95 percent of whom come from families that struggle with the effects of poverty, we have learned that not only do most of our youth use what they’ve learned in their own communities, but the adults who are speaking and facilitating the discussions gain deeper awareness and understanding themselves. Together we are coming up with solutions to create social justice in our Cleveland community.

With over 450 volunteers, we are a diverse group. We invite adults from different walks of life—for example a Cleveland Clinic doctor will partner with an ex-felon who’s turned their life around—so that our youth can hear different perspectives on various topics.

In a recent discussion regarding the topic of stress, one of our speakers recommended confiding in friends to help combat stress; another volunteer might recommend a breathing exercise or yoga. We are creating a space where young people can decide what works best for them and create their own solutions. It’s these experiences as well as learning from diverse adults that impact the youth by allowing them to see various viewpoints on a topic. We also get to hear from our young people on what they do to combat stress—it could be anything from eating candy to playing basketball. We believe that no one group can combat and create social justice, it’s all of us together that will make this happen.

We have to learn to listen to each other—young people have a lot to share about how to live with these complexities. It’s a two-way street, and we should honor that.

We created the EYEJ Impact 25 Youth Council, a group of 19 youth ages 15-25 from all across districts in Cleveland, to come together to brainstorm issues, injustices, and challenges they and their peers face in their community. We know that these young people are dealing with the toxic stress of their environment, from poverty to violence. When the Youth Council broke down all of the injustices they face (40 different categories and counting), we were exhausted ourselves trying to figure out what to focus on to help youth safety in our city. With so many issues facing our young people today, it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed in searching for solutions. We have to remember we were young once, and these kids are hungry to learn if we give them a chance. Too many have been set up for failure, and I’m hoping that we remember that they are the future and that we don’t give up.

Adults provide experience, teaching, and expertise, but our youth live in a different, much more complex world than we did at their age. We have to learn to listen to each other—young people have a lot to share about how to live with these complexities. It’s a two-way street, and we should honor that.

Ready to help? Find out how you can volunteer or donate to EYEJ.

Mai Moore

Mai Moore is the Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit EYEJ: Empowering Youth, Exploring Justice. The organization was founded in 2013. Mai also has 20 years of experience in marketing. Mai has a deep passion for empowering people, bridging worlds, and developing start-ups.