Our Youth-Driven Philosophy

Our Youth-Driven Philosophy

BY KORI DOTY

As an organization YouthCO is built around 5 core values that inspire and inform the language we use, the programming we develop and the relationships we build. The 5 core values are:

  • Youth-Driven
  • Harm Reduction
  • Sex Positivity
  • Anti-Oppression
  • Inclusivity

While all of these values are huge concepts unto themselves, the ways that they fit together is really where the magic happens at YouthCO. By focusing first on being youth driven, I would like to talk about how that helps us live up to the other values, and do our work in the best ways possible.

Since its inception almost 17 years ago, YouthCO has been youth-driven. The need for youth-specific services around HIV was exactly what drove a group of youth to start YouthCO. Over the last decade and a half, youth in Vancouver have been creating and recreating an organization that has worked to meet their needs. Over that time we have grown to include Hep C support and education services, an Aboriginal Youth Program and an education program that reaches over 4,000 youth every year. That’s a long way to come from 5-10 people sitting around someone’s living room, talking about how the pre-existing HIV support systems weren’t working for them. What is it that has made YouthCO’s peer-driven model so successful?

A phrase often used within the disability rights movement is “Nothing About Us Without Us”. It communicates the idea that the people who are directly affected by programs, policies or decisions should have a say in, if not directly control, the process. It means integration of marginalized voices. As youth, we are often discredited and ignored, especially when it comes to choices around our health and wellness. However well intentioned, the systems of government, health care, education and other social services often operate in such a way where an attitude of “we know best” is held, sometimes limiting our ability to access things that we need to be healthy.

Coming back to the core values, we notice that harm reduction also holds a place in the ways that YouthCO operates. One of the key points of Harm Reduction philosophy is that people will make their own choices, whether it is what others want for them or not. When given resources and access to healthier alternatives, people will be more likely to reduce their risks. Youth are no different; when given access to resources, support and information, we are able to make decisions for ourselves without compromising our developing sense of self-determination. The transition to adulthood is largely about learning how to make choices and deal with the consequences. A “we know best” way of thinking from authority figures can prevent youth from developing these essential skills. Similarly, a “just say no” or “my kid isn’t doing it” attitude can leave young people in crisis when they need support the most. Harm reduction offers alternatives. Harm reduction speaks directly to our anti-oppressive ideals, as working within an anti-oppressive framework requires the acknowledgement of power relationships, and conscious actions to dismantle them. In a world where we are continuously having decisions made for us, letting us make our own choices is anti-oppression in action.

Sex can carry so much stigma and taboo in our society that maintaining sex positivity can be very challenging, especially across generational gaps. Talking to the adults in our lives about sex – our current or desired experiences of sex, or any questions we might have about sex – can be really uncomfortable for youth and adults alike. Having a team at YouthCO whose members are knowledgeable and skilled at facilitating conversations around sex that create space for all experiences, positive and negative, offers us ways to take care of ourselves and each other. It comes back once again to the belief that every person is able to offer something to the conversation (there’s that last value, inclusivity), and that when the information and resources are accessible, everyone is the best boss of their own self.

Within YouthCO we have a broad range of experiences. As a group we can come together to design, develop and implement educational and support programming that suits our needs. We get to answer questions like, “What do young gay poz guys in Vancouver want/need in a support program?” by having young gay poz guys take the lead on creating a program tailored to them: exemplified by The Social. “What are relevant ways to engage Aboriginal youth in conversations about sexual health, empowerment and de-colonization?” Why not let Aboriginal youth already having those conversations create ways to open the dialogue? This is exactly what the Aboriginal Youth Program at YouthCO does. At YouthCO, we try to create spaces where the lived experiences of diverse youth can be valued, forming the basis of all our work.

At YouthCO, we are always looking forward to more youth taking the lead on projects that are driven by their unique passions and perspectives. Volunteers with commitment are at our core. In our own ways, whether we are youth spearheading projects, or elders and alumni supporting youth to drive innovative and relevant peer work, we are creating a space where youth leadership continues to be a value put into action.

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