For me, National Crittenton’s 2017 conference, In Solidarity We Rise, was transformational. It was the first movement-building conference I had attended, the first large-scale experiment – that I had seen – in intergenerational collaboration, leadership, and love.

To me, those three things go hand in hand: intergenerational collaboration, leadership, and love. It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. I want to assert the idea that it takes young people to raise a village.

Generally speaking, we live in a world that privileges adulthood. You must be a certain age in order to vote, drive, and make key legal decisions for yourself. Public agencies and city councils meet during school hours, so youth cannot attend. Youth-serving professions are not staffed by youth, because the education system sets youth up to age into adulthood before they can get full time employment.

There is a pervasive cultural narrative that young people do not yet have enough autonomy, agency, knowledge, or experience to make decisions, for themselves and for others. In many ways, young people are always being told, not right now. Not yet.

It’s time for us to shift our frame of understanding to capture the unique value of youth voice in our conversations. If, as many adults would claim, young people are not contributing en masse to communities, governments, and movements, it is only because of gaps in opportunities to do so. It is only because youth contributions are often dismissed or go unrecognized, and youth engagement efforts are de-prioritized.

Policy spaces often refer to young people as the “leaders of tomorrow.” This is untrue, or at least incomplete.

Young people are already the leaders of today. They are not waiting to grow into members of the community; they already are. And as members of the community, they are already responding, already resisting, engaging, and advocating. They are co-creating with previous generations the future that their generation will live in.

It takes young people to raise a village. So if you care about the future of your villages, of your communities, cities, states, nation – loop us into your conversations. You’ll need us.


Smitha Gundavajhala at In Solidarity We Rise 2017.

Smitha Gundavajhala is a youth advocate from the youth mental health advocacy world, where she sees health and education systems struggle to engage and include young people in their decisions. She studied Public Health and Public Policy at UC Berkeley, and advocated with fellow students to secure remote counseling, confidential peer counseling spaces, and close gaps in Berkeley’s counseling services. She also worked with high school students as a Health Educator for national nonprofit Peer Health Exchange, and facilitated campus-community collaborations as part of the school’s Public Service Center. Since college, she has worked with No Stigma No Barriers, a Transition Age Youth advocacy collective, as well as with the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC). Smitha’s journey has led her to youth empowerment and engagement, and she looks forward to helping lift barriers to youth advocacy.