One of my greatest joys is watching young people bloom. In my professional life, I am a fortunate witness to this every day. I see the happiness that comes when kids plant seeds for the first time, or taste turnips that they grew themselves, and the confidence that builds in our young service members as they become teachers and role models for other youth.
I draw strength from these moments, because when I reflect on the world that young people are inheriting, it can really terrify me. Ecological disaster, climbing obesity rates, impending resource depletion and climate change…it’s a world in crisis. And, youth are directly impacted by this crisis. One in three children and teens are overweight or obese, and they are part of a generation that is likely to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
The work needed to reverse these trends is enormous, and requires not only a multigenerational approach, but also opportunities for young people to be part of the solutions.
I serve as the Farm to School Director at La Semilla Food Center, a young, community-based organization in southern New Mexico that I co-founded. La Semilla (the seed) works to foster a local food system that reflects our values and prioritizes community health. Our mission is to build an equitable food system, where we have real food choices in our community, and where lack of access to affordable, fresh food is no longer a barrier.
When my colleagues and I came together to establishLa Semilla, we did so because we share a passion and commitment to engaging and empowering youth. We have witnessed the power that comes when spaces are created for youth to participate in issues that directly affect them and their communities, and the transformation that occurs when they have opportunities to realize their own capacities to create change.
Over the past five years of working with youth in food systems change, I’ve come to realize that it is quite complex and requires young people of all ages. We are engaging several generations to fuel a paradigm shift to create the changes we want to see in the world, and building the capacity of one generation of young people (18-25) to work with another generation even younger. We do this by providing programs that invest in youth and families (K-8 school gardens, parent/child cooking classes, teen gardening and cooking activities, farm-based youth employment), by building deep relationships, and by creating opportunities for young people to lead.
Investing in youth is a long-term commitment, and absolutely worth it. There is nothing more powerful than helping young people realize their potential. Whether they become farmers or food system advocates is secondary to understanding that each has a unique contribution to make in the world.
Yet, there are challenges with youth leadership being taken seriously. Common assertions include that ‘young people these days just don’t care,’ that they are too inexperienced and lack specialized knowledge, or that they are only connected virtually. In our border region, almost every family is touched by diabetes. We can’t even begin to reverse this if we don’t invite young people to participate. We need to be open to new ideas and ways of seeing the world that youth bring to the table, and create a space where their fluidity with technology and social media are valued. Perhaps, it’s not even ‘new ways,’ but innate wisdom and creativity that hasn’t yet been conditioned out of them.
La Semilla’s multi-generational approach helps build the capacity of young people as professionals, too. As a community based organization, we are able to leverage national resources to build the capacity of youth leaders from within our own communities. These young adults serve as school garden and program coordinators and garden crew leaders; they are teachers, role models, and mentors to younger youth. And, as part of an organizational leadership team where the ‘eldest’ member is 36, we are constantly seeking mentorship from our elders to ensure we draw from wisdom of all ages to sustain this work.
All across the country, young people are organizing to for real and fair food systems change (Live Real, FoodCorps,Rooted in Community and theYouth Food Bill of Rights, to name a few.) La Semilla works to create local opportunity while connecting youth in our community to these national networks.
An enormous amount of work is needed to address the health and environmental crises that will affect young people for generations to come. And, though the changes we need won’t happen overnight – this is systemic change, after all – each step, each person brings us that much closer to realizing a shift. As I’ve witnessed so many times, the vision and ideas for creating change, start with just one seed. Literally. So, in the spirit of Guerilla Gardener Ron Finley, go out there and plant some semillas…with a young person!
This post originally appeared on the IATP Food and Community Fellows blog.