Since 2004, teenagers from different faith backgrounds in the community of Sharon, Massachusetts have been engaging in dialogue and public service. Formerly known as Interfaith Action, Youth LEAD was initially a formed out of a program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League to foster dialogue in a religiously diverse small town setting. Historically a Jewish community, Sharon is now home to sizable Christian, Muslim and Hindu populations with eight synagogues, eight churches, and an Islamic Center.
Youth LEAD’s mission is to inspire and mobilize youth leaders to reflect upon their values and beliefs, connect with others across differences, and act together to address local and global challenges. With the motto of “reflection, connection, action,” the members of Youth LEAD are trained to first reflect on their own beliefs, before connecting with those who hold different beliefs, in order to act upon those differences and similarities for the benefit of the community.
What has made Youth LEAD’s approach to interfaith work so unique has been their commitment to authentic youth leadership. Youth LEAD is driven by the vision and actions of its high school leaders, with staff leadership offering organizational support. According to Jason Smith, former Youth Program director at Youth LEAD, “One of the most important things…that we’ve been doing is that people can articulate who I am and this is what I believe. And they’re comfortable doing that, both interpersonally and in larger settings, so that in college, they’ll speak up more, they’ll take leadership roles, and they’re comfortable asking other people to communicate and facilitate those conversations.” Youth LEAD provides these leadership roles within their programming through building and participating in community service projects, and allowing students to become senior facilitators. Senior facilitators act as mentors to new members, plan and lead bi-monthly meetings, and take on individualized projects such as writing grant proposals or facilitating dialogues at conferences.
Students involved instantly notice the impact. “I’ve always had a diverse of group of friends but we never talked about the important issues. We’d have a very diverse lunch table, but we’d be talking about a sale that’s going on at the mall,” explains Hadley Chase, Class of 2011. “And after I joined Youth LEAD, we started talking about the important conversations.” With this approach, Avni Kacker, Class of 2012, agrees that the program has helped her resolve conflicts in the community. “A lot of the issues lie within communication. Youth LEAD helps you to be able to communicate effectively.”
The success and popularity of Youth LEAD’s interfaith work has led the organization to expand from interfaith work to broader issues of identity. “It’s less a religious literacy program now than it was in the beginning, and its more about the interpersonal: ‘This is what I believe, this is what I experience, this is my world,’” explains Janet Penn, former Executive Director of Youth LEAD.
Other major programs include the annual TIDE (Teenage Identity Diversity Education) conference, which is planned and run by Youth LEAD’s students for their peers across the country. Because of the students’ commitment to TIDE, and its measureable impact on the students, it has been called Youth LEAD’s most important program. Youth LEAD’s popular training workshops, honed over the years in the local community, are a core curriculum at TIDE, and are also exported to other communities across the United States throughout the year.In 2016, the TIDE conference was held at Emerson University and brought together youth from Youth LEAD, Bird Street Community Center, and the local YMCA. Connecting with youth outside of their respective programs was a highlight for participants, and the participation of additional programs in Youth LEAD’s TIDE conference has continued.
Since 2019, Youth LEAD has been housed at Emerson College. Youth LEAD Board Member, and member of the Emerson College Board of Trustees, Raj Sharma forged this partnership between Youth LEAD and Emerson College. What began with Emerson hosting the 2016 TIDE conference has evolved into a formal partnership between Youth LEAD and Emerson College’s Social Justice Center. While still maintaining an independent non-profit status, all of Youth LEAD’s administrative functions have been housed at Emerson since 2018, and in July of 2019, Youth Lead was officially integrated as a part of the college. Partnering with Emerson College’s Social Justice Center has provided further administrative infrastructure and offered programmatic support to Youth LEAD.
In addition to the continued program in Sharon, which had over 40 participants in 2019, Youth LEAD is looking to create a Youth LEAD, Boston program. Sylvia Spears, Vice President for Equity & Social Justice at Emerson College, oversees Youth LEAD’s programs and stated that as part of Emerson’s Social Justice Center, central to the Youth LEAD Boston program will be “a deep commitment to under-resourced communities.” As such, Spears says, Youth LEAD aims to “develop a sustainable model for long-term organizational thriving while remaining accessible to students from under-resourced communities.” To that end, Youth LEAD has been in discussions with dozens of already operating youth non-profits in Boston to assess how Youth LEAD can meet this goal, and to determine how Youth LEAD fits into the larger landscape of other Boston based youth leadership programs.