We must put young people into a position to learn the many varied skills of advocacy in theory, action, and as a group. Teaching advocacy with the three pillars of Theory, Action, and Community, any group of committed young people will attain the confidence and intelligence to advocate on behalf of themselves and their loved ones.
The story of the birth of this program is more about me than about any one group of students. It's a story about seeing the full picture rather than a small fragment.
Driving to Munoz-Marin, my North Philadelphia school site, I felt excited like I often do when preparing to teach a cooking club lesson. I had already completed two cooking club series and felt comfortable teaching, cooking, and supervising simultaneously. Due to the hectic schedule of the co-sponsoring teacher, often times I had to do all three with minimal assistance from him. Fortunately for me and the cooking club participants on this day, Mr. Henderson had enough free time to commit to assisting our cooking endeavors. Now, what you have to understand is that Mr. Henderson is a former chef, so his experience puts my very limited work in the kitchen to shame. What you also must know is that earlier in the day I had asked and received the permission of the kitchen manager to use the full-service kitchen as a classroom for the cooking club. So, you have to imagine me with all my cooking equipment, the chef turned teacher, a full-service kitchen, and 12 students excitedly preparing to begin our session. When Mr. Henderson asks, “Why don't we just use their stove to cook rather than your electric skillet?” Now, ordinarily I am incredibly cautious when it comes to young people around large cooking equipment, but he was a trained chef and these young people were seventh graders so I knew the benefits outweighed the risks. Well, Mr. Henderson begins working the tabletop grill and the smells of the onions and peppers and mushrooms start swirling through the kitchen, and within minutes the kitchen is alive with movement. Young people preparing more mushrooms, chopping additional onions, and opening more bags of low-fat cheese. Soon enough, many of the young people are handling cookware and moving food up and down the grill.
The students were thrilled to have the chance to cook in such a professional looking environment, Mr. Henderson was excited to have the chance to work with his students casually, and I was overjoyed that the cooking club had taken on such a practical and dynamic form. These young people were working with fresh food, making a vegetarian dish, and relating stories of past cooking experiences, smiling the whole way through. It was then that Mr. Henderson changed that positive attitude for the rest of the session with one statement. It was like we had all been living in this fantastic kitchen with it's pristine equipment and had forgotten about the world outside the kitchen. He told us all then that the reason the equipment was pristine was indicative of the larger problem. It seemed to Mr. Henderson that the equipment we had been using and much of the other equipment throughout the kitchen was telling him a different story. “This equipment has never been used”. The students and I looked bewildered. Then he said, “If you look at the grill and how clean it is, any commercially operated grill would have marks of all kinds lining the surface, and this has none. I mean it's spotless.”
I was speechless. The students were not. They began firing off questions after question and demand after demand trying to understand why they couldn't enjoy the caliber of food we had just produced in less than half an hour. Turns out, the full-service kitchen had been reduced to a satellite kitchen not long after being installed. The fridge was packed to the brim with frozen entrees and the ovens were colored dark from use.
The dots had been connected for me. I saw then not just the value of the cooking club, but the value of something else: the value of exposing the policies structuring the lives of these young people through hands-on investigation and action. If we can couple this kind of learning environment with an advocacy curriculum, those very same young people could have done the appropriate research and strategic planning necessary to change those structures to allow for the healthier tomorrow they all deserve.
Young people must be given the information necessary for them to see the larger picture. It's not enough to be able to cook well on a tabletop grill, you must be sure that every child will be eating nutritious food from those same grills tomorrow and beyond. Such a vision requires a new kind of demand; a new kind of advocacy.
“When the teacher is ready, the students will appear”.
You ask any class of students “who wants to be a leader?” And you will see 99 percent of the class with their hands up. They will be stretching and straining their arms to get the attention of the teacher. I see this kind of hunger for power everyday. The students are ready for the challenge of leadership. The question now is, are we ready to teach? This program will see students taught persuasion, political education (very basic), strategic planning, coalition building, community research, and teamwork. This recipe for advocacy will lead to youth advocates capable of designing and implementing an advocacy event in their locality mobilizing their community around health. They will see first-hand the potential impact their ideas and their actions can have to effectively shape their world for a healthier tomorrow. I can attest to the power of this kind of empowerment to convince young people to continue to stay informed, and courageously stand up for what they believe is right for their generation and the generation of tomorrow.
The skills we will impart to these young people through this program will make them capable of envisioning a world we cannot even dream of. And these dreams will not be deferred. I will aid them in connecting the dots between policy, community, and nutrition. For each of them their connections will be different. Their unique visions will give them the strength, the resolve, to sustain.
A Healthier Future will give young people the opportunity to read deeply into their advocacy talents and see for themselves their evolution as an advocate: a thinker and actor.