On April 6th, ~25 high school students representing four local schools assembled in the 3rd floor performance space of the Ithaca Community School for Music and the Arts for a summit to discuss and voice their thoughts on the topics of mental health (depression/anxiety), drugs, and suicide. A Day for YOUth summit was the culmination of nearly eight months of planning efforts. These efforts were steered by a core group of representatives from Ithaca High School and the New Roots Charter School, supported by members of the Cradle to Career initiative. The Center for Transformative Action/Dorothy Cotton Institute provided funding support for project planning and implementation.
A Day for YOUth began as an idea in the summer of 2018, developed in a Design Thinking workshop hosted by the Tompkins County Youth Services Department for Cradle to Career network members. Design Thinking represents an approach to product/idea design where an idea is rapidly refined over multiple, brief testing cycles. A group of workshop participants hoped to apply this philosophy to address the dearth of youth voice and youth engagement within the Cradle to Career network. A focus group of approximately 10-12 local youths was consulted to assess the feasibility of hosting a summit with attendees from schools in Tompkins County. The idea was well received, and the youth quickly identified possible topics that the summit could cover as well as the potential age groups they’d like to see represented, underscoring the importance that the summit should be for youth and by youth.
The youth planning group that emerged from this initial advisory group began meeting bi-weekly in September of 2018, a frequency which increased to weekly in the month leading up to the summit date. They determined that the topics of mental health, suicide, and drug use had the most salience by polling their peers on social media. The youth’s desire to use this summit as a space to engage with their peers from others schools produced the summit’s eventual format: Community Café-style discussions preceded by a brief topic overview provided by a local professional.
Invitations to the summit that were extended to all of the local charter and public high schools were positively received. Unfortunately, logistical difficulties, including securing transportation difficulties and parental permission reduced the eventual number of attendees. However, the smaller turnout had the unexpected effect of fostering more profound, engaging, and richer conversations. By the end of the summit (and confirmed by exit surveys) it was amply clear to the casual observer that the teens were basking in a rare opportunity to network and openly discuss topics of concern with their peers from other schools.
With a successful summit behind them, the planning committee has begun planning for follow-up events. Under consideration are variations on the scale and length of events, from more elaborate summits to smaller organizing meetings, possibly with a narrower focus on a single topic that would allow for prolonged, deeper discussions. There is also a desire to diversify the representation of youth on the planning committee to other schools and find other ways that youth from other Tompkins County school districts can participate.