To create real change, include everyone. That was the message sent to a group of young people who attended the Obama Foundation’s training day for civic engagement on Saturday.
The daylong event, held in partnership with Arizona State University, gathered 150 people ages 18 to 24 from the Tempe area at the new Student Pavilion building on the Tempe campus.
The young people talked about identity, shared their stories with each other, mapped out their strengths and met community leaders who already are working for change. The day involved several workshops that gave them practical skills for identifying and solving problems in their communities.
Randy Perez, an ASU student who is pausing his studies while he works for the Obama Foundation in Tempe, addressed the group, telling them how he pored over the more than 450 applications to be part of the event.
“Something I picked up on was what I’ll call the inspiration gap,” said Perez, who is working on a public policy degree.
“A lot of you said, ‘I’m looking to be inspired to do this work.’ It’s not my job to inspire you. It’s all of our jobs to inspire each other.”
In one session, the young people were asked to reflect on themselves by Steve Becton, associate program director at Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit that engages people on the topics of race and prejudice.
“We all have blind spots,” Becton said. “What you have to be is critically conscious. You’re not so much questioning everybody else, but you’re questioning yourself. Your biggest project is yourself.”
Odessa Clugston, a senior at ASU, was one of 24 peer advisers for the training, a group that spent weeks preparing for the day — including learning how to form a team, lead seminars and work on self-reflection.
“I think working on yourself is the hardest one, right? Knowing our own biases,” said Clugston, who is majoring in justice studies and political science and is working on addressing homelessness in Maricopa County.
“For me, being sustainable is a blind spot. I value the environment but don’t always recycle so I’ve been working on that.”
Another powerful exercise was meant to create empathy. The young people were paired and, led by facilitators from the Narrative 4 nonprofit, each told a three-minute personal story that was then retold by their partner. An African-American woman described her white partner’s experience of being disciplined in high school for sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the white woman described her African-American partner’s realization that a racially insensitive comment she received came from a lack of understanding, not malice.
In the afternoon, the participants worked on identifying assets — strengths in themselves and in their communities.
“Instead of ‘This is what my community doesn’t have,’ look at what it has,” said Ruthie Moore, a youth council director with Mikva Challenge, the nonprofit organization that led several of the workshops.
She asked the young people to consider the motto of the day: “One voice can change a room.”
“What if we put together more than our voices? What if we put together our assets? Assets help us take action,” Moore said.
The group texted their responses, creating a colorful word cloud on a giant screen, which included determined, diplomatic, resilience, library, public transportation, ASU. The word cloud was another lesson for the future changemakers — in how presenting information visually creates a bigger impact than just speaking.
All of the activities built a framework for learning to take action. The young people chose from a list of Phoenix-area problems, such as homelessness and food deserts, and created a storyboard, listing symptoms and causes, identifying decision makers, brainstorming solutions and agreeing on a first step. They gave one another feedback and envisioned what would happen when the problem is solved.
Among the key points that were emphasized: Be as inclusive as possible by taking a nonpartisan approach.
“Without a broad-based coalition, change can’t happen,” said Josh Prudowsky, chief program officer for Mikva Challenge.
Many of the young people at the training day have already identified community issues they want to address. Brandon Vaca, a psychology major at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, said his high school didn’t fully prepare students for college, so he wants to work with teenagers on college readiness.
“I want them to understand that college is an option. I never saw the bigger picture of how important college is until a few years after high school,” said Vaca, who will transfer to ASU next fall.
He said that networking with the other civically engaged young people in the room was one of the best parts of the program.
“I really liked getting to know all these other people,” he said.
Megan Tom, a senior at ASU, is Navajo and wants to help prepare tribal leaders to work together to preserve the environment. She attended the Obama Foundation training day to ensure that there was a Native voice at the event.
“I wanted to support any Native students who were here, as well as voicing the Native perspective because this is a prestigious opportunity and it’s something I believe can help ensure that indigenous voices are maintained in the civic-engagement dialogue,” said Tom, a senior majoring in English literature with a minor in public policy.
The Tempe training day was only the second one for the Obama Foundation. The first was last month in Chicago, and David Simas, the CEO of the foundation, said he was pleased with one marker of that day’s success: A survey done before the session found that one-third of the participants knew how to take steps to make changes in their community, and a survey after the training showed that 91 percent knew what to do.
“Today we give them inspiration, some skills and some connections that then begin to answer that question, ‘Do you want to get involved?’ This is the way to begin,” Simas said, adding that the foundation will refine the training-day format based on feedback from the Tempe group.
Former President Barack Obama showed up at the Chicago training last month, surprising the group. At Saturday’s ASU event, the day started with a video of Obama giving the same message he gave to the South Side young people:
“When I left the White House, I thought, ‘What’s the single thing I could do that would be the most impactful in this next phase of my life?’
“I realized that the best way for me to have an impact is to train the next generation of leaders so that I can pass the baton, and all of you can make change in your communities, in the country and in the world.”
Clugston, the peer adviser, said that when she learned about the training opportunity, she applied immediately.
“I want to be in community involvement for the rest of my life,” she said, and the Tempe training day was just a start.
“It’s about continuing to mobilize and never giving up hope that things could be better.”
Top photo: Facilitator Charles Miles (left) of the nonprofit group Narrative 4 concludes a session during the Obama Foundation's training day event at the Student Pavilion on ASU's Tempe campus Saturday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now