This story originally appeared in The East County Californian. Read it here in its original form.
Youth Will organizer Safia Haidari, 25 summed up the story of how the San Diego Youth Development Office transformed itself from a potentially city of San Diego-funded department dedicated to youth services, to a county-wide youth advocacy organization.
From 2012 to 2019, the organization was developed under the city of San Diego but when its affiliation with the city ended another group of organizers stepped in and preserved the goal— connecting youth with available services. However, the new iteration changed the approach to youth-led outreach groups and expanded the program to extend across the county of San Diego.
In its current form, seven ambassadors reach out directly to youth across the county in an effort to connect them with programs and resources that exist, but might not be getting utilized or that youth in need have not found on their own.
Where programs don’t exist, the group advocates for how to best fill that hole for today’s youth.
Coming out of the summer 2020 of protests, a pandemic that pushed connection to a virtual setting, and a heated election season that culminated in a siege on the United States Capitol, the non-profit organization appears timely with its emphasis on gathering young voices with shared experiences to strategize for collective impact.
At its core, the group focuses on training young people to build partnerships with adult leaders to effectively advocate for youth needs.
Those needs are something of a moving target, goals Youth Will organizers spent the summer identifying so they could better advocate for exactly what their demographic says it most needs.
Their summer 2020 program was seven weeks long, structured so ambassadors reached out to youth contacts via social media and a text campaign, while simultaneously approaching school districts across the county.
“We noticed with our summer program, we had less success reaching out through districts than with principals and kids we knew,” Haidari said.
Still, Haidari said, several initiatives were born out of that approach.
“We learned peer-to-peer contact has the most successful approach. In order to reach young people, we rely on social media pretty heavily,” Haidari said.
They began asking where youth felt they needed support and through the County’s Rapid Response grant, 10 ambassadors contacted about 26,000 young adults through social media, email and texting campaigns and surveyed what they needed, what holes exist in youth outreach.
The answers they received from across the county were, overwhelmingly, requests for help with housing, food and employment.
As a result, Haidari said, more than 500 young adults were provided with resources they did not know were offered by the city, county, state, and federal government.
Based on that unofficial survey and direct feedback to summer ambassadors, Youth Will then created group projects on mental health assistance, higher education resources, food and rental assistance, and job opportunities.
Some ambassadors oversee individual projects while also serving as advocates loosely associated with different county districts. For example, Youth Organizer and Resource Ambassador Subrein Damanhoury “oversees the Transitional Age Youth Unit that our youth justice team has been advocating for,” Haidari said.
In addition to working with transitional age youth, Haidari said, Damanhoury also advocates for needed resources and funding in district 2, East San Diego county.
Youth Will is not funded by the county and is running solely on grant-sourced funding from The Aspen Institute.
“Basically, we can go another six months with our current team of seven ambassadors,” Haidari said.
“Our government should be investing in this,” Haidari said.