A self-proclaimed “shy” teenager, Shaquita (Quita) Williams, found herself confidently stepping up to the podium just months after meeting a Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) representative at her high school. “That was a real turning point for me,” said Williams. “I was intrigued by everything I heard about YES!, including the name of the organization, and I jumped at the opportunity.”
YES! empowers youth, in partnership with adults, to create community change. Williams was fortunate to be selected as one of 25 teens interviewed for a few YES! youth staff positions. She had no idea what to expect. “The interview experience was amazing, and I learned a ton about myself during and after the group interview activities,” said Williams. “Apparently, I’m a circle – a people person – who knew?” That was just the beginning of a new path for Williams and other teens who joined the YES! staff.
Shortly after joining the YES! team, Williams was invited to work on Action Now!, a project which provides advocacy training and real opportunities for youth to create change related to adolescent health. Action Now!, funded by the John Rex Endowment, focuses on applying the YES! model to increase Wake County’s overall capacity to actively engage youth in understanding and improving health indicators.
Working together, a small team of youth researched and analyzed more than 40 adolescent health recommendations drafted by the North Carolina Institute of Medicine Task Force. The Action Now! youth were charged with choosing one issue that they would advocate for in the years ahead. It took months for them to thoroughly analyze each one in detail.
Together, the youth staff agreed to recommend a School-Based Health Center for Wake County. Then the Action Now! team began to define the network they needed to get their voices heard. They met with legislators and community stakeholders, and they engaged other youth. They wrote letters, received media coverage, and raised awareness with community groups.
“I’d never been asked to weigh in on something big like that, to formulate my own thoughts, or to seek real solutions for change,” said Williams. “It was cool we were expected to choose on our own, and people believed in us.”
While working with YES!, Williams took a career readiness test along with other school students. She was the only one of her class to receive a gold certification, and she attributes it completely to her experiences with the Action Now! project. Two years after joining the YES! team, Williams moved on to college, but she didn’t leave a single lesson behind.
“I am quick to jump up in class, make suggestions to teachers, and work through something as a group to improve everyone’s learning experience,” said Williams. “Now, I can’t keep quiet about the change we can make if we are empowered to voice our perspective, which starts with truly understanding an issue.”