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Chicago Youths Put Their Imprint On Meeting for Nonprofit Leaders

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Chicago

Young people were very much seen and heard at a conference of nonprofit leaders here last week, the outgrowth of an effort to cultivate a new generation of leaders in the philanthropic and community-service fields.

More than a dozen local students spoke on panels and introduced speakers throughout the three-day annual meeting of Independent Sector, a coalition of about 800 nonprofits, foundations, and corporate-giving programs. The students, ages 13 to 19, were chosen to participate based on their service to the community. Among other projects, the students tutored, worked in AIDS awareness, and taught martial arts to disabled children.

At several sessions, the young speakers were introduced via video clips projected on giant screens. In the brief vignettes, shot in a variety of settings throughout the city, the youths explained their motivations for volunteering and related lessons they had learned through community service.

While the speakers were one of the more tangible signs of youth involvement, there was also a sizable contingent of high school students, college students, and recent graduates registered as participants. Young people asked questions during the sessions and networked over hors d'oeuvres alongside the leaders of foundations and nonprofit groups, such as the Girl Scouts and the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services.

And, for the first time in Independent Sector's 14-year history, two young adults were elected to its board: Vanessa Kirsch, the 29-year-old founder and director of Public Allies, an urban service corps, and Jeffrey Trujillo, a 26-year-old program officer at the El Pomar Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo.

'Exciting Places To Be'

In the 1960's, Ms. Kirsch said, many young people viewed the Peace Corps and the government as vehicles for advancement. In the 1980's, they flocked to the corporate sector. Today, she said, it is the nonprofit sector where the so-called Generation X will leave its mark.

She and others pointed to examples of the wave of community-service organizations created by young people: Teach for America, Do Something, and the journal Who Cares? The emerging "social entrepreneurs" likely will launch many more such groups, Ms. Kirsch said. "I think we're going to be the most exciting places to be."

Also for the first time, Independent Sector provided about 40 scholarships to enable young people to participate in its annual meeting free of charge.

Most of the youth representatives were from either Public Allies or Youth on Board.

Public Allies places young people in internships at nonprofit organizations and public-sector agencies and helps develop their leadership and community-building skills.

The five-city corps was selected this year as one of the charter AmeriCorps national-service programs.

Youth on Board seeks to increase the number of young people serving on boards of directors of nonprofit organizations.

Broadly, the group hopes to identify and document ways to set up and maintain effective intergenerational governing boards.

The group does not have an estimate of how many people under 21 currently serve on nonprofit boards, according to Karen Young, the director of Youth on Board. However, the group has a network of 70 nonprofits that have formally endorsed having young people as board members.

A Learning Experience

At a session on board development, students who have been board members described what they gained from the experience.

Yvonne Oldaker, an 18-year-old student at Prairie State College in Illinois, has served on a board and is one of two representatives on an Illinois state commission on voluntary action.

"I've learned a lot about how lo[adults] see things--and not necessarily what it's like to be an adult, but how to fit into the adult world," she said. "You can have a great idea, but if you're screaming and yelling, no one is going to listen."

Other young board members interviewed after the session said they had developed skills in communications, organization, and time management, as well as a deeper understanding of how government, economic, and social systems work.

Many also said they had encountered barriers along the way.

"It has been sort of frustrating at times," said Jeanie Ringelberg, a 16-year-old high school student who serves on the board of the Grand Haven (Mich.) Community Foundation. "They listen to me when I do talk, but I don't get to talk that often."

And Agape Looper, now 22 and working at the Urban Service Project, said she was ejected from the board of the now-defunct San Francisco chapter of Youth Build--a national youth-development organization that trains young people in construction trades--several years ago because other board members decided someone under 18 was too young.

"I was angry, I was frustrated, I felt invalidated," she said. "You would think they would be excited to work alongside a young person, but they were so closed-minded and rigid."

In general, many participants welcomed the presence of young people at the meeting.

"I like what I see, and I think there needs to be more of it," said Judy Ford, the director of development for Operation Smile International, a Norfolk, Va.-based group that helps provide reconstructive surgery for children worldwide.

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