Giving youth a stake in their hometown

We expect young people to leave home after high school. Exploring life helps us grow. Yet we often don’t give youth a reason to come back, to invest in the community that nurtured them. Like many others, Will Powers left his hometown in Appalachian Kentucky. Then he came home.

For Powers, growing up in Kentucky was far from perfect. He sometimes struggled to feel accepted in his town of Somerset. “I’m a gay man and that can be challenging in Eastern and Southern Kentucky.” 

So he left for college to Los Angeles and worked there. But something was missing for him. “There are many things I love about LA, but I didn’t feel as connected to the community.” In Kentucky, he felt his presence mattered because of an experience he had there.

In high school, he got involved with the Kentucky Student Voice Team (KSVT), an organization working to improve education in the state. The organization trains high school students to become facilitators and sends them across the state to moderate conversations about how to make public education better.

Young people – the ultimate beneficiaries of education policy – lead a process of community listening. These students are responsible for gathering all the ideas and divergent views and bringing them to policymakers, where their reports inform policy decisions. 

For Powers, being trusted with this leadership role gave him a sense of belonging even when he traveled to conservative towns like Henderson, KY. “I remember connecting with the people at my table so meaningfully. It was one of the first times I felt, as a young person, validated in the work I was doing by people older than me,” he says. 

That experience drew him home after the glamour of LA faded. Powers now works for KSVT. “When you are young, you are constantly looking for opportunities to grow and do something about the issues that matter to you,” he says. “When you don’t find those spaces, you feel powerless. The most effective way to counter that disillusionment is to give [youth] a platform to be leaders. You just need to trust them and they will rise to the occasion.”

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