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  • Amy Louttit

Yes to YES 2.0!

The Youth Empowered Society (YES) is a community-based organization that serves young people experiencing homelessness, ages 14-25 years old. YES has a rich, albeit brief, history in Baltimore as the only youth-developed drop-in center providing safe space since 2012. Unfortunately, due to many factors, YES closed their drop-in space in October of 2021. Since then, Ciera, one of the program’s alumni, and a peer to many youth served, kept YES from disappearing altogether. Ciera met youth quite literally where they were at for all of 2022 and 2023, knowing that most were in crisis and still in need of support. She met them in their communities to do case management, bring them supplies, and always to remind them that YES is still here for them. YES has also always been a participant in strong state-level advocacy work, and I had known about them from my time as a Public Policy Associate with the National Network for Youth (2014-2019) I didn’t know back then that I would join their Board of Directors in April of 2022, when the board was focused on stabilizing and (hopefully) growing and relaunching.

In September 2023, I transitioned from my board position to be a member of the YES staff through MICA’s Community Arts Collaborative AmeriCorps program. We began strategic planning in late summer to reimagine what YES could look like in the years to come. We were in a truly unique moment as an organization where we can dream together about a new space, what programming will be developed, and how to best meet the needs of Baltimore’s youth. As such, this critique is less about what I would change, and more about what we learned from YES 1.0, and what we want to build into YES 2.0.

YES, since its inception has been developed in partnership with the youth it was built to serve. In fact, one of the original young dreamers, Nadja, was the chair of the board when I joined. Having Ciera be a long-standing part of the team and past participant has been invaluable. She has described our prior programming design and what she would have changed. I have to say that most of what would have changed was on the part of staff leadership and infrastructure and not the programming offered to participants. The previous drop-in was the main floor of a row home on N. Charles St. There was a warm reception area with lockers just through the front door which was staffed by someone (often a peer) able to do light intake when needed. The middle of the house had an office (which became overcrowded toward the end) and a kitchenette. The back was the large, main “community” space and included a playroom for the children of the young parent families who found themselves there frequently. In fact, over time, young parents experiencing homelessness grew to be one of the largest demographics served at YES.

YES was a micro-community all on its own and all of the good and difficult the youth faced only served to bring them closer together. This has become extremely clear from the fact that we have many alumni engaging with this rebuilding process today. During strategic planning, when asking what things we needed to carry into YES 2.0, one alumni, Collins, shouted out, “the LOVE! YES was where I knew I was loved, no matter what. Our kids need to know when they are there, they are loved, that they are worthy of love.” To me, that statement is what our programming should be built on; it’s our foundation and it’s revolutionary.

Leading art activities at a program like YES is not about the final product, but it is about relationship building and ultimately, the healing. Young people from YES 1.0 still keep up on each other around Baltimore, even if they are all in very different stages and places in life. I would say it was like something I’d never seen, but I have. Collins told me that Ciera took up space in his life when he was feeling a void. As a case manager and his peer, she was able to be authentic in her role, not clinical, and that bond sticks. This community-building story I’ve seen at YES, is the same as what I have experienced with my group in Eureka, CA where I was the peer mentor - and now, since I’m not there, they keep me updated in case I need to reach out to someone. To lift up peers as mentors, beyond case managers, social workers, or other such clinical roles, and to respect them in that position, is to prove by example that lived experience is valuable and that healing is reciprocal. This model will persist throughout the organization.

Moving into YES 2.0 in the context of art programming, a few things have already surfaced for us to consider. One, as noted above, is for healing and growing community. Another is to focus on workforce development components, entrepreneurship opportunities, and intentional development of (wanted) transferable skills - for example, and depending on funding, graphic design, screen printing, photo/video editing, etc. Another focus, stemming from past strength, is advocacy and artivism. I thoroughly enjoyed Dipti Desai’s article and found sections instructive in thinking through developing not just curriculum here, but something “less clinical,” less hierarchical - after all, YES is built on our beliefs that if it isn’t youth-centric, it won’t work. The essential factor is a rich environment, encompassing both established and emerging community partners, that nurtures the spark needed to move others to change policies, laws, and systems. As with any programming at YES, youth will have regular opportunities to give feedback and suggest changes, as well as move in and out of programs as they need.

In conclusion, helping young Baltimoreans, and their peers, heal their traumas together not only gives them a strong support network, but it gives Baltimore a better chance at having strong, healthy youth taking the reins in their own neighborhoods. That requires having a safe place to rest and recuperate; we have to meet basic needs, including human connections, first. That place, and its energy, has to be founded on revolutionary love and continuous collective learning. When youth and young adults are given spaces and empowered to create community, they will step in to “get each others’ backs.”*

*YES daily check-in: Name, Pronouns, What’s your goal for the day, Who will you go to for support.

Whoever was named (maybe many people) answers back, “We got your back.”

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