Think about the transformation your organization could experience if youth became partners in thought leadership, development, and implementation of your program models.
Senior Fellow, GripTape
To listen to an audio version of this article read by the author, click here.
Have you ever heard the saying, “If you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk”? No? Well, essentially, it’s a slightly modern version of saying, “Actions speak louder than words” and “Practice what you preach.” Surprisingly, there are a lot of organizations that do not hold true to this saying, so finding those that do is much harder than one might expect. In 2018, I stumbled upon an organization that did walk the talk, but it wasn’t until 2022 that I felt its full impact.
As a teenager, you feel accustomed to people telling you what you should do, how you should do it, and even when it should be done. Your opinions get lost in the opinions of others, and you almost forget what your voice sounds like. In 2018, as I prepared to enter my senior year of high school, things changed for me because I found a program called GripTape. Actually, if we are being honest, the program fell into my lap when a friend, who was also an alum of the program, shared her experience with me. It sounded way too good to be true because she explained that “you get to choose what you want to do, how you want to do it, and no one else’s opinion matters.” I probably laughed when she told me. But, as the rebel that I am, I applied anyway, and crazy enough, I got accepted.
I was the first Challenger from Kentucky (at least that’s what they told me), and I dove head-first into the program. What does it mean to be a GripTape Challenger? Well, it means that youth get to decide what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, all on their own time. This could look like learning to start a business, becoming a beatboxer, or discovering the best coffee bean in the state of Georgia. Then youth get 10 weeks, $500, and a Champion to be their cheerleader along the way. What is a Champion? An adult who believes in a young person, is interested in their learning, and provides thought partnership and support—but NEVER advice. Youth are in full control of their entire learning process, no ifs, ands, or buts.
From my very first interaction with the program as a Challenger, I knew that GripTape was different. Not one time did someone tell me, “This is what you need to learn in order to succeed,” or “This is how you need to set up your 10 weeks to actually complete the program.” No. This was 10 weeks where I got to call the shots and be in control of the playbook—no gradebook included. Since that experience, I have been stuck to GripTape like super glue. I think it had a lot to do with the organization being a rebel like me. They set all the preconceived notions of the world of youth education aside and chose to take the road less traveled.
When I was accepted to the Learning Challenge, I was Challenger number 200. Today, GripTape has supported over 2,700 youth with the opportunity to get their voice back and actually get in the driver’s seat and take charge of their own learning. Every single year, Challengers share stories of how GripTape changed the way they go about learning opportunities, gave them the confidence to pursue their own interests, and even helped them feel a sense of purpose. Yes, a #LifeChangingMoment, but don’t think the story stops there; surprisingly, it continues to get better.
GripTape has been persistent—like a bull when they see a waving red flag—at putting youth in positions that other organizations wouldn’t. GripTape pushed the envelope from its founding with the creation of a truly empowered Youth Leadership Board. Young people are in charge of what happens at GripTape, and they are actually using their voices and putting in the work to help other youth have the same experience. GripTape alumni have the opportunity to be youth researchers in work with Cornell University as they study the impact of GripTape on the lives of Challengers. Alumni can become Ambassadors or GripTape Reps (in rural Colorado) to share the mission and vision of the program to inspire other youth to apply. Doesn’t this stop and make you wonder what the future would look like if more young people had a say in what they wanted to learn and the space to explore their passions?
Young people have been told that they are not qualified to lead because of their lack of experience, but studies have repeatedly shown that youth learn at a more rapid rate than adults—so help them get that experience.
Senior Fellow, GripTape
Everyone reading this knows the value that education has on the formation of one’s mind, but have we gotten ahead of ourselves and created a “one-size-fits-all” prescription? Have we given youth the opportunity to be in real leadership positions where they get to make the decisions? As you build programs that support young people, are you making an active effort to include youth in the design process?
In 2022, GripTape decided to take things a step further and create a new level of youth leadership. They designed a new position called Senior Fellow that puts a GripTape alum at the center of the organization. In this role, a youth learns how to organize, lead, and grow an organization from the inside. This is another example of GripTape “walking the talk” and putting young people directly into the driver’s seat.
Now you’re probably wondering why this is important and why you should care. Great question. I currently serve as the GripTape Senior Fellow, so I actually have the inside scoop on what it really means to have this role and be a youth with some real authority. I like to describe my position as the Junior CEO of GripTape. To me, this opportunity is better than getting my MBA because it is more hands-on and allows me to really put my learnings into action. This is yet another instance of GripTape demonstrating how much it values youth learning, youth advocacy, youth empowerment, and, most importantly, their alumni. But this also matters because it is an example of how YOU CAN DO IT, TOO!
I have now served in this role for nine months, and the expansion of my knowledge and wisdom is immeasurable. Not only was I able to learn directly from experienced leaders in both the education and research space, but I was also able to grow as an individual and find the confidence to share my voice (hence this article). Although GripTape is still an anomaly in its own right, that does not mean it has to be the only one going forward.
How many organizations or companies do you know that put 22-year-olds on their executive team? Not many? None at all? Why do you think that is? The only answer I could think of is, “Young people don’t have the skills or experience for the work.” I would agree, but the other side of that truth is that they can learn. The majority of education programs are focused on serving youth, but without having input from them, how can these programs know that they are meeting the real needs of young people? Think about the transformation your organization could experience if youth became partners in thought leadership, development, and implementation of your program models.
Young people have been told that they are not qualified to lead because of their lack of experience, but studies have repeatedly shown that youth learn at a more rapid rate than adults—so help them get that experience. They can be a tool and resource for the growth of organizations by sharing their experiences and providing a new perspective on old methods. Let this be the year that youth are included in the process of your decision-making and given a real opportunity to lead. Allow yourself to get uncomfortable. We have the power to create a world where youth leadership is the norm, not the exception. Let’s all take the road less traveled and start creating real change.
And one more thing: GripTape’s 2023 Learning Challenge application is now open! I urge you to ask the youth in your lives what’s something they are passionate about learning and then encourage them to apply by May 31. More information can be found on the GripTape website.