The pandemic affected individuals, households, and communities in ways never previously experienced. One of the groups most adversely affected by the pandemic were youth. As the American Psychological Association noted last year, “Children and youth have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in unique ways. Disrupted academic schedules, reduced social interaction, and unparalleled levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and grief are affecting children’s mental wellness, as are broader societal issues like racism and the politicization of vaccines and masks.”
In Nevada, lead organizers launched Nevada95, a youth civic engagement project that sought to connect, organize, and inspire youth around issues of health, just as the public health crisis was shutting down Nevada, restricting gatherings, and closing schools. The core objectives of Nevada95 are to build a statewide network of youth-led and youth-serving organizations, increase youth representation on public boards and commissions, and improve health youth outcomes (with a focus on reducing teen homelessness and teen suicide).
But, as our youth are resilient, so are we. In order to adapt to changes induced by the pandemic, our organizers pivoted and adapted to a world of virtual meetings and masked faces. Our first activity provided an opportunity for young people in Nevada to share the ways in which the pandemic had affected them through art, prose, and poetry through our “Youth Service and Civic Engagement 2020: A Year in Review contest.” Nevada Humanities partnered with Nevada95 to curate the participating youth’s art in an exhibit titled, “Nevada Youth Make Their Mark: Sharing Experiences from the Pandemic Year and Looking Forward,” and later featured youth artist Luis Soto, Jr. in its blog. His piece if pictured at the top of this page.
Throughout the pandemic, Nevada95 youth organized, designed, hosted, and led several webinars designed to inform their peers. In March 2021, Nevada95 hosted a webinar with Nevada Legislators during which time several legislators shared information on the legislative proposals they were working on that would affect youth. Following the conclusion of the Nevada Legislature, Nevada95 held a second webinar in July to debrief the session. In April 2021, Nevada95 hosted a webinar on a topic that is top of mind for many young people: student debt. The webinar, “Financial Aid Workshop: How to Pay for College: What I Wish I Had Known,” shared financial aid resources and tips for young people. In September 2021, our youth hosted a Listening Tour stop with Nevada State Treasurer Zach Conine during which the youth discussed their needs and priorities and offered recommendations for how Nevada should invest its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Funds. Over 30 youth participated from both rural and urban counties in Nevada. In November, Nevada95 hosted a youth-led workshop, “Self-Care and Mental Health Recovery for Student Athletes,” which put a slightly different spin on the mental health challenges facing youth during the pandemic.
In addition, following training by Public Agenda, Nevada95 hosted two Photovoice Projects which included youth from across Nevada. Topics examined by Nevada’s youth include the disrepair of Nevada’s rural highways, grocery store deserts, climate change, and rising rents. Of particular interest among youth in both Northern and Southern Nevada was the issue of homelessness.
Photo: Courtesy of Chloe Hartwell, Photo Voice 2021
In 2021, Nevada95 also launched monthly statewide network calls with youth-serving and youth-led organizations, which presented an opportunity for organizations to share their work, upcoming events, and solicit advice and/or ask for support. On average, about 15-30 organizations participated in each call. New connections were made, networks were established, and partnerships were advanced.
Above all else, Nevada95 has prioritized skill building among its youth. At every step, youth have designed and led the webinars, developed project ideas and applied for grants, applied to serve on local, county, and state boards, and written opinion pieces. For example, in 2021, Nevada95 youth successfully wrote and applied for a local city grant, “Bags of Hope,” to support local homeless youth. Another youth published an opinion piece, “Helping Nevada’s Young Women Should Be A Legislative Priority,” in support of legislation that would require public schools to make feminine hygiene products available for free in middle school and high school bathrooms. Several youth have applied to serve on state, county, and local boards, including the Nevada Juvenile Justice Oversight Commission and the Clark County Juvenile Justice Services Citizens Advisory Committee.
In May of this year, Nevada95 released a report on Youth Outcomes in Nevada, which was highlighted by several news outlets across the state. As summarized by The Nevada Independent, “In 2019, nearly 25 percent of teens (ages 14 to 18) lived in poverty in Nevada’s rural areas, compared with less than 15 percent of teens in urban areas. It’s one of multiple alarming findings detailed in the report that sheds light on indicators of poverty, unemployment, mental health and substance abuse among the state’s teenage population.”
As we close out the summer, our Nevada95 youth are preparing a resource guide for their peers, which will be available online and shared with partners. And, in July, Nevada95 youth are partnering with ed.Xtraordinary, powered by Teach for America Las Vegas, to host a one-day workshop inviting youth to engage in critical thinking to reimagine education and collaboration opportunities.
While the pandemic forced our organizers to pivot, adapt, and reimagine, we never lost sight of our overall objective – to empower Nevada’s youth to identify community problems, act, and lead. Progress may have been slower than we had wanted. But Nevada’s youth and our community partners never wavered in their acknowledgement that the work of empowering our youth and training the next generation of leaders is critical to a healthy community and to our collective future. The external challenges provided an opportunity to identify new issues beyond health that are important to youth (such as education and jobs), and build new strategic partnerships with both ed.Xtraordinary and Nevada Partners, a local nonprofit that provides integrated service delivery and cradle-to-college and career support that seeks to mitigate the negative consequences of poverty and accelerate economic independence. These partnerships will allow us to advance and deepen our collective work as we continue to provide opportunities for Nevada’s youth to advance their voice, address community problems, and reimagine innovative solutions leveraging their lived experiences.