Photo of signs reading "Let Youth Be Youth"
Photo of students sitting in a school assembly

A few weeks ago, more than 400 youth from six Brighton Park schools met to tackle some of the challenges they face in their community — from police violence and unhealthy relationships to adultism and violations of immigrants’ rights.

With support from Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), the day-long “Let Youth Be Youth Summit” was planned, coordinated and hosted entirely by a handful of middle school students who strive to create better schools and a stronger, more equitable community.

This is just one of the many organizing efforts BPNC — the lead community partner of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network — facilitates in the working-class community on Chicago’s southwest side. Uniting residents, schools and social service providers, the Neighborhood Network brings the entire community together to solve its most pressing problems and create opportunities for its residents.

To do so, they put local youth in the driver’s seat.

BPNC has “always thought that if youth are not active members in our work, then it’s incomplete. Any effort to improve the community and make sure it’s a place where everyone can thrive must involve youth and has to create space where youth and their experiences are centered,” said Olivia Abrecht, a BPNC staff member who mentors and helps youth organize.

“We’re not advocating on their behalf, but empowering them to advocate for themselves,” she added. “That’s what this youth summit was hoping to do — to make sure that students are at the heart of our work.”

Similar to United Way’s Neighborhood Network approach of convening various stakeholders, the students brought together community leaders and resource providers to educate their peers at the summit. They created a dialogue around community problems and social issues that affect their lives at home and at school. The day of workshops saw facilitators — from the Cook County Commissioner to activists — share their expertise, all while uplifting student voices.

On a warm Thursday afternoon following the summit, Josselyn Hernandez, Nicole Carrasco and Daniela Mebina, eighth-graders at Davis Elementary, met for their weekly organizing meeting to reflect on what they learned.

At a time when the students are very frustrated with certain school policies, the girls saw the summit as an open stage to voice their opinions and share insights with other students from the neighborhood. “It was great,” Josselyn said. “Now, other students are going to want to join and make a difference.”

The three girls also left with a sense of pride and accomplishment as they head to high school in the fall. “We can create something,” Daniela said. “We made it happen.”

And though these issues will still need great investment in the years to come, their hard work and energy sets the stage for what’s possible when young people put their vision for a stronger community into action!