Hearing Youth Voices
We’re committed, at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, to youth — especially the youth of Oakland and San Francisco. What’s more, we know that young people are brilliant and have the perspective, empathy, analytical skill, and capacity to lead us all to a brighter future. Youth, we believe, are possibility personified.
One way we have expressed this commitment and belief for the past three summers is through our BAY Fellowship, hiring Oakland and San Francisco public school students as part of our grantmaking team. BAY Fellows learn about philanthropy, have a well-paying job, and make decisions about how we, as a Fund, act. The following post comes from one of this year’s BAY Fellows, a recent graduate of Balboa High School in San Francisco, and someone who has spent the majority of their high school years navigating the greatest public health crisis in the world.
My name is Noah S. and I believe it’s important to include youth voices in all conversations. I graduated from San Francisco’s Balboa High School in June 2022, then worked with the Walter & Elise Haas Fund as a summer 2022 Bay Area Youth (BAY) Fellow. As a BAY Fellow, I participated in meetings with Fund staff, partners, and grantees where I discussed recent changes in my community. For example, I was able to share my perspective on young people’s experiences throughout the pandemic as well as which programs proved helpful to me during those tough times.
The Covid-19 pandemic really impacted young people in my community. Many people around my age went through hardships that affected their mental health, physical wellness, and spiritual well-being. Before quarantine, I had a mental health issue and that grew worse during the pandemic. My mental health issue was not noticed by anyone at school, not even my adult allies. I wanted the people who were close to me to know that my mental health was getting worse, but everyone had similar issues to deal with, and they were not able to help me. I responded with negativity — and this affected my friendships and relationships with others. Once we went back to school in person, many of my peers complained that it was hard to focus during classes due to mental health issues. This was exacerbated by our teachers assigning more work to make up for lost teaching time during online learning.
Mental health is important because it affects how we think, feel, and act. Young people’s mental health was not good before the pandemic — and isolation only made it worse. We need more resources to help us heal.
Spending a year in quarantine, we had limited interactions with the outside world and lost our connections to each other. Many young people shifted from hanging out with family and friends to having to work multiple jobs to help our families. In my family, my parents lost their in-person jobs. That resulted in them needing to find new jobs, which ended up being lower paying. With them no longer earning enough to feed our family of four, I took on two jobs. One was an internship and the other a job in retail.
I know I helped my family so much during this time, but at the same time, the pressures of working made my mental health worse. I kept working even though I was already at the point of giving up because there was no other way for my family to make it through.
I needed to do something, so I made some changes. I quit my internship and joined a program that pays young people while helping them cope with mental health issues and offering career advice. This program — Summer Youth Academic Employment Program (SYAEP) — helped me so much because I could focus on my mental health without worrying about working a second job. They showed me how to cope with my mental health issues and organized in-person events that really helped. I am so grateful that the program helped me but wish that it lasted longer than one summer.
There should be more programs like this. Young people need more in-person interactions that provide work experience and income. I am glad I can share my experience with the people of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, so they can understand how important these types of programs are. I speak as a 19-year-old on behalf of all the adolescents out there who believe youth voices are impactful and important. We believe our opinions and voices matter, and that we can change the world for the better.
It is hard to be part of conversations with adults. We feel discouraged when it comes to discussing everyday social life issues as many adults believe we’re too young to have the power to contribute meaningfully. In some organizations and programs, adults take over. They speak for the youth, and make decisions on their behalf, leaving youth left out, unheard, and devastated.
Every voice needs to be heard and considered and youth voices should be projected or written down. We need to feel that we are an important part of conversations and the communities in which we live.