By Nkem Nwankwo
Youth Advisor, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
From my birth in Nigeria I have gone by the name Nkem mostly because that's the name my parents gave me and partly because I like it. In my native tongue of Igbo it means 'my own' so basically my mamma was really possessive of me; that makes me feel loved! Currently, I live in Colorado because it's an amazing state for many reasons especially the things we Coloradans are able to do for leisure. Fun for me consists of playing my guitar by the creek, or watching the sun rise or set from the top of Lookout Mountain. I would call educating younger whippersnappers in the game of basketball fun but that's my weekend work. They call me "The Professor" now.
As a student, I am always ecstatic when I am able to fit leisure into my busy schedule; it's not the easiest thing to balance collegiate studies in chemistry with systems-building work at the state in addition to community work. I'm not trying to write too much about myself and leisure in Colorado, I'll skip to the meat of things, it's still a bit about me and the work being done in God's Country (Colorado).
Aside from playing music and sports I am a very outspoken person for youth rights. More than a year ago I was hired as a Youth Advisor for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). As a Youth Advisor for Colorado 9to25 (CO9to25 for short) I get to advocate for youth voices to be represented at all tables that impact their well-being. CO9to25 is about aligning systems by creating communication and by the coordination of programs and practices across all the systems that impact youth. To find out more about CO9to25 and become part of our community, visit www.co9to25.org, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter (@CO9to25).
A lot of my work is to travel around Colorado connecting with youth groups/councils to gain their recommendations and feedback on programs and systems. It's not just the adults across the state that are amazed at youth creativity and insight, but my mind is often blown too at the fresh ideas I receive and the great work that youth are doing all around Colorado. The work ranges from developing advocacy training utilizing advanced technologies to connecting with their communities to create better access for those with differing abilities. Ever more as I learn from them, I am always impressed by the dedication of the caring adults that stand alongside youth providing them with the knowledge, skills and opportunities to do great work.
Often you'll hear us preach about the importance of connection not only at the individual level but also at the familial and community level, and let me not forget the policy and systems level. Research has shown that youth that are connected to caring relationships with an adult and their community have better outcomes. That's why I and my colleagues, who are youth and youth-serving professionals, do this work. We do it to better the outcomes of Colorado's youth. We understand that if youth are reaching their full potential the entirety of our state will be better off.
Better outcomes for youth in the state of Colorado is why Anne Marie Braga, Audra Bishop, and Mary Jane Cassilia worked hard to hire Youth Advisors Lesley Del Rio and myself to work as their equitable partners at CDPHE and as pilots for all systems work alongside youth. We are the first Youth Advisors, but before Lesley and I were hired there were several youth working at the state in different capacities.
The Youth Advisor model was recently evaluated here at CDPHE and the report showed that CO9to25 partners value our work; they want to know how to replicate the Youth Advisor model. Many already have. There are Youth Advisors that we work with at other state agencies and local non-profits. As for CO9to25, we are working now to fully evaluate it to make sure that youth are truly benefiting from our work to align the systems that impact them. I personally trust that youth are benefitting, seeing that youth and young adults such as myself are involved in every nook and cranny of the work.
If I have learned anything as a Youth Advisor surrounded by people that value young people, it's that when youth are equipped with knowledge, skills and opportunities, they will produce great deliverables every time. Young people are the most passionate people on the planet. You know what I mean if you've ever seen a girl obsess over One Direction. Youth get work done! Our ideas are usually simpler, more cost effective and just plain more effective. No one knows how to engage youth like youth, but honestly we couldn't do it without the caring adults that partner with us!
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