The Young Advocates Program is the absolute epitome of young adult power. Since the fall of 2019, four cohorts of our next generation of leaders have been a shining example of what happens when young people are able to use their voices to create the change they know is necessary from experience. Over the last few years, I’ve had the honor and privilege of working closely with these Young Advocates and have seen firsthand how their stories and experiences have begun to elevate the values of young Illinoisans.
The Young Advocates Program is a paid leadership development program that teaches young adults ages 18-34 the principles of advocacy, research, policy, organizing, and storytelling. The advocates are split up into working groups based on our issue areas:Higher Education, Workforce Development, and Health Care/Mental Health. Their time in the program is divided between workshops and training with the entire cohort, and working on small team projects within their working groups. Each working group is led by a member of the Midwest staff, lending their expertise to guide them on various projects.. This model not only exposes the Advocates to all of our work, but also allows them to deep dive into an area that they are most interested in. At the end of each cohort, the Advocates are able to showcase everything that they have learned in our signature graduation event – Policy Shark Tank, where the Advocates pitch a policy idea to a panel of expert judges including community leaders and legislators, and a winning group is chosen based on criteria like impact on equity, political feasibility, budget impact, and more.
It is safe to say that all four cohorts of Young Advocates have experienced the program in different ways, which not only highlights the flexibility of the program, but also speaks to the ever changing reality of what it’s like to be a young adult in Illinois. Our first cohort had a huge challenge ahead of them: not only were they our inaugural class and (mostly) willing guinea pigs, they had the responsibility of showcasing what they learned at Young Invincible’s 10-year anniversary celebration and debuting what was just an idea up until that point – Policy Shark Tank. Our second cohort was launched in the early stages of the COVID pandemic, and was our first completely virtual cohort. Shifting quickly to Zoom meetings and adapting our curriculum to represent the new virtual reality, the second cohort also helped lead our first ever Virtual Advocacy Day. Cohort 3 led us through data collection for our 2022 Policy Agenda, and set the stage for some very important legislative wins in the coming future.
Our most recent Young Advocates Program graduates were a truly special group. This cohort combined everything we’ve learned in the previous cohorts, and put it into practice. From hosting three separate Virtual Advocacy Days and sharing their stories with legislators, to helping pass the Young Workers Bill of Rights and advocating for funding for the Mental Health Early Action on Campus Act, our most regionally representative and demographically diverse group has moved the needle on nearly every priority for YI Midwest
As important and monumental as all of those accomplishments are, perhaps my favorite part of this particular cohort was their Policy Shark Tank, which we were honored to have judged by Jen Dean, Co-Executive Director of Chicago Votes, and Oscar Sanchez, YAP Alum and Local School Council Representative. Each group came up with jaw-dropping ideas and the research to back it up: Team Higher Ed had a proposal to provide college education to prisoners soon to re-enter into society; the Workforce Development group advocated for mandatory mental health days for college students; and our Mental Health team created a pilot program that created partnerships between colleges and Chicago Public Schools to provide peer mental health services.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to lead the Young Advocates Program, learn from the leaders we’ve had the privilege to engage with, and watch the collective impact that their voices have had on our state. I’m excited to watch the trajectories of all of our YAP graduates, and look forward to once again being in awe of the next generation of Young Advocates.
Troy Alim is Young Invincibles’ Midwest Engagement Manager, where he facilitates the office’s young adult programs and engagement strategy.