Brattleboro Area Youth Council up and running strong

Members of the Brattleboro Area Youth Council built the structure for their group from the ground up.

“I remember it being a really fun experience,” said James Chapman, who will be a freshman at Brattleboro Union High School in the fall. “It really opened me up to how you work within a group like that and it showed me the dynamics of something like that.”

The council was created for youth to participate in decision-making and shape strategies affecting their lives, taking responsibility for their community as well as themselves and changing conditions to promote mutual well-being. A team of 20 local youth designed its structure in March 2022.

The council began working in August and currently has 10 youth members, with a rolling application process. The age range is currently from 13 to 16 years old with a diversity of age, residence, race, ethnicity, social orientation, household income and ability.

Membership of the council is limited to those who are 11 to 21 years old and the maximum number of members is 20. Members receive stipends for their time and dedication.

Chapman recalled all the council members working “really nicely” together, looking to be as productive as possible. He said the council provided him with an opportunity to “improve his community, and represent my peers and their perspectives and my perspectives on the world.”

Grace Arms, who is entering the freshman class at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Mass., said the process for designing the council began over Zoom meetings and lasted about five weeks.

 “It was really just assembling people with different experiences,” she said, “talking about what worked best in the past.”

Arms and others had been part of student leadership groups. They drew from those experiences for the Youth Council.

Arms described Cassandra Holloway, co-leader of the council and executive director of Building A Positive Community (formerly known as Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition), as “kind of like our team leader” who gave them a basic outline for formation. They looked at what they wanted to focus on and change in the community.

“Since then, we’ve gotten more freedom I would say,” Arms said, referring to the way in which the council is run.

Arms said the council at its first annual retreat Saturday changed its structure “to make it work for everyone” as people have “time consuming schedules.”

The Full Council Committee will have members who oversee the infrastructure and scope of the council. Sub-committee members will assess, plan and oversee priority issue projects.

Task forces will take on individual projects. The work is open to any youth to join in on.

A few months ago, Chapman and a three other council members went to Landmark College to make a presentation to leadership teams at the individual schools within the Windham Southeast School District. One of the issues that came up involved the disconnect between students and teachers.

“We found a few solutions,” Chapman said. “You could have a student representative or have meetings with teachers. I remember one student in particular was involved and excited about it. It felt good to bring the excitement I get from the Youth Council to a student who may not be able to find that in their own school.”

Since joining the council, Chapman has noticed he has more confidence, can speak in ways that bring productive results and is better able to function within groups.

“It was a really good experience because you get to talk with new people, get intel, their thoughts, then you get to add,” said Lizzie Elkins, who will be a freshman at BUHS next year. “It’s really nice. It’s fun.”

Elkins enjoyed hearing what other people had to say then developing an answer from her perspective.

“I thought it would be a really cool experience and I’d get community service hours and then you get to try to help with Brattleboro and make it a better place,” she said. “At first, I was really shy to be honest and say an opinion.”

After seeing others get involved, Elkins said she feels more comfortable talking in the group.

“I think it’s a really good experience and I hope that there’s going to be other youth who join because it would be a good experience for them to take away from,” she said.

She hopes to conduct some outreach to get more youth involved.

Arms said she learned about “respectfully disagreeing and coming to conclusions that work for everybody.”

“I have seen the most respectful people I know, with completely different opinions, come to an agreement,” she said. “It’s the most amazing thing to watch.”

Student leadership in the middle school had been more directed, Arms said. For instance, students looked at planning a school dance and increasing kindness levels.

Arms said the Youth Council is given more freedom to explore where members want to see changes. They have worked on “shared power in schools” between adults and students.

The council will now be focusing on downtown Brattleboro and safety. Downtown Brattleboro isn’t “the safest place,” Elkins said.

Chapman looks forward to bringing an outsider perspective to the table, as he lives in Putney but walks around downtown Brattleboro. Elkins said the council is thinking about interviewing people about whether they feel safe downtown and trying to minimize the number of problem areas such as places where people buy or use drugs.

Arms called safety “a really big issue we saw in our community.” She said the council wants to look at ways to improve safety overall in Brattleboro.

Youth Council members “themselves don’t always feel safe downtown, but they’re also very aware that the people that make them feel unsafe are victims in their own rights and have particular needs that they want to learn more about,” said Diana Wahle, co-leader of the council and youth programs director at BAPC.

Wahle said she and Holloway created an outline of what they felt would be the most worthwhile tasks to discuss at the retreat.

“They just took off with each of those topic areas,” Wahle said. “It was quite touching. It was very rewarding.”

Wahle said council members started by sharing compliments about one another and acknowledging their achievements. Holloway called the expressions of appreciation “sincere.”

“They don’t always agree on things,” Holloway said, “but I’m just really impressed by how they listen to each other and how they come to decisions together.”

The council had earlier decided it would require a two-thirds group vote in order to move things forward.

Holloway is impressed by a career shadowing survey the council developed to help school staff arrange internships or job opportunities. She counted more than 100 responses and expects more to come in the fall, since the council wanted to hear from more students.

Wahle said the council also is focusing on mental health or challenging issues facing families, particularly homelessness.

“I think all those topics are pretty complex and involve a lot of different components,” Holloway said. “They’re looking at projects that can kind of at least make a difference and I think they’re also wanting to be part of the conversations that are being had.”

Holloway said the council wants to be involved in organizing youth participation in local politics after a new town charter change recently approved by the Legislature after overriding the governor’s veto will allow 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections, and serve as Select Board or Representative Town Meeting members. She anticipates the council might also encourage youth to join local committees.

Her group’s mission is to provide opportunities for community members to foster the well-being of young people, promote the resilience of their families, and reduce harm related to substances. BAPC oversaw the certification of Brattleboro as a Quality Youth Development Community, which makes it part of a new national certification program celebrating communities that support, engage, inspire and empower youth.

Brattleboro has attained 8 out of 10 benchmarks for the program. One of those is the creation of a youth council.

Members of the Youth Council are Arms, Chapman, Elkins, Alex Aither, Maeve Bald, Mariam Diallo, Jaya LaLanne, Maddie McKinley, Connor Noyes-Urffer and Jamel Smith. The Youth Council meets at least once a month at the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro.