Youth Development Specialist Candace Musick and Youth Outreach Team Case Manager Michelle Thomas have run Youth 4 Truth, The Night Ministry's leadership development program for young people served by the agency, for the past few years. But lately they've been able to step back as program participants have taken charge.
"There used to be a lot of Candace and I talking, and the participants listening," said Thomas. "But now this most recent cohort took things to a place where they wanted them to go."
Youth 4 Truth was created to more formally bring youth experiences and perspectives to bear in The Night Ministry's programming, and members' recommendations have resulted in changes to program policies. Participants apply to join a cohort, which lasts for 10 weeks. At the beginning, cohort members decide which topics, ranging from career goals to advocacy issues, they want to explore during their weekly meetings.
"The last cohort focused on advocacy work, particularly around SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and food insecurity," Musick said, "as well as making sure that the other young people around them understand why it's important to vote in the upcoming elections."
The cohort was nearing its conclusion when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, preventing members from gathering for one final meeting. Musick held virtual meetings for cohort members to check in with her and each other over the last several months. And recently, as the shelter-in-place order was lifted, she organized in-person but socially distant celebrations for cohort members.
Julie Campos just finished her third cohort. She said Youth 4 Truth gives her and other young people who have experienced homelessness a place to be heard. "What I like about Youth 4 Truth is that we get to be open about things that are important to us but that other people might not think are important. We know that it is a space where what we say is going to be welcomed and not be judged," she said. In February,
Julie and fellow Youth 4 Truth member, Kota Vaughn, testified before a hearing of the Illinois House Progressive Caucus, relaying their cohort's concerns to state legislators about the challenges homeless youth face finding a living-wage job, the crippling effects of a prior eviction, and the lack of trauma-informed mobile mental health services for young people experiencing homelessness.