There is No Change Without Youth

A Recap of The Voices of the Next Generation in Transportation Webinar

One of the most exciting partnerships for America Walks is with the National Organizations for Youth Safety (NOYS). In September of this year, NOYS held a national convening called the National Youth Transportation Equity Convening in Memphis, Tennessee and invited us at America Walks to attend. The goal was to create a gathering where Black, Indigenous and People of Color could come together for a full day of learning, community, youth advocacy, reflection and foster meaningful conversations and connect with others. The convening provided an intergenerational space that was both reinvigorating and inspiring, showcasing the kind of world young people are already creating.

Challenges to Youth Engagement

Young people possess exceptional potential as advocates and catalysts for change. However, too often, they are not considered or engaged in transportation planning, which creates major challenges in the transportation system. This is particularly true for Black and Brown youth. Although youth engagement can present challenges and is sometimes construed as a lack of interest or concern by young people, the reality is youth have strong voices and are eager to shape the world around them.

NOYS (National Organizations for Youth Safety) has played a critical role in advocating for the safety of youth on the roads. The organization has been working towards reducing traffic violence, serious injuries, and fatalities since its inception in 1994. Over the years, NOYS has been instrumental in bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders to work towards creating safer roads for all. In 2022, NOYS made a bold change to redirect all its resources and programs towards supporting marginalized youth health and safety. This move was aimed at empowering youth to take a more active role in shaping transportation policies and practices that directly impact their lives. By giving young people a platform to express their views and concerns, NOYS has helped to shift the conversation around transportation issues and have demonstrated the power of youth-led movements in creating positive change in society. 

A New Generation

One of the most significant changes that youth are bringing is the transformation in our transportation system. For years, the rite of passage to adulthood has been getting a driver’s license. It exemplified freedom and movement. Now, young people wait longer to get their driver’s license, wait longer to purchase a vehicle, or forgo driving altogether by moving to areas with more walkable and public transit options. While there are countless reasons why younger generations aren’t driving, we know young people continue to be the most impacted by road traffic injuries and fatalities, climate change and rising cost of living. This has created distrust among young people in their decision makers and has led youth to envision a different way to move throughout their communities. The transition towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable transportation system is underway, and young people are leading the charge.

During our conversation with NOYS, Executive Director, Jacob Smith (he/him) we explored the many reasons the transportation conversation has changed drastically. We were joined by 3 young, urban planners and transportation leaders, Fatima Elkot (she/her) from Conscious Community Connectors, Systems Strategist Andrew Leung (he/him) and president of the National Youth Bike Council, Joshua Funches (he/him). They spoke not only about their learned expertise, knowledge and skills from education and professional work, but they emphasized their personal perspective, identity, history and lived experiences and how it affects the way they approach their work.

Throughout the conversation, these young leaders emphasized youth engagement and relationship building in order to build an equitable, accessible and safe transportation system for youth. In order to build a system for youth, you have to engage and uplift youth. This means you have to meet them where they are at, connecting with them and ensuring their voices are heard. It’s crucial to recognize that all young people have unique identities that cannot be reduced to a singular entity or can be found in one place. 

You also have to be relatable to them to keep young people engaged and continue building a relationship with them. Representation of young people is essential. When young people see themselves represented and reflected in the work, they are more likely to stay engaged. Youth may not be able to prioritize unpaid time, therefore, compensating them for their time is also key to keeping them involved. Finally, in order to truly address systemic issues, you cannot focus on individual behavior. Blaming youth for traffic fatalities and injuries is harmful and unproductive. Instead, by involving youth in decision making and providing them with the opportunity to contribute to transportation solutions, we can create a safer and more sustainable future for everyone.

Get Involved

For youth who are interested in learning more about how to join these spaces and learn about advocacy, NOYS has several programs, including Your Voice, Your Action Infrastructure Safety Contest and you can find other programs on their website. The National Youth Bike Council hosts the Council Chatcast which showcases youth voices from across the country. Make sure to check out the National Youth Planning Conference.  Finally, at America Walks, we are always looking for people who are interested in writing a blog and sharing their experiences of walkable, safe, inclusive and accessible places, or if you are interested in joining one of our campaigns, please get in touch with us!

Watch the Full Webinar Here:

Questions to Unanswered Questions

During our webinar, we weren’t able to get through all the questions but our panelists took time post-webinar to share some thoughts.

Is it more effective to engage youth outside of the school environment and/or school day?

Fatima Elkott: I am a fan of “por que no los dos”- the more the merrier. Everyone has different access issues, lifestyles, needs, etc. Some students are booked and busy as soon as they are out of school with other extracurriculars, so sometimes in-school programming is the best option to reach more students: BUT, in school has a lot of constraints with time, topics, capacity, coordination with the teachers, etc. I think engagements outside of the school are really helpful for those students who are passionate and want to be more involved as it opens up the door for a lot more opportunities and possibilities for engaging projects and experiences (but you can also find out who those motivated students are by first being exposed to them within the school setting and then working from there). A lot of our programs have started either in or out of school and then blended into the other one as well- so it really does depend on what your own capabilities are. If you’re able to get into the school system now- go for it! Or start the out of school engagement and through that you may be able to connect with who you need to in order to offer the in school engagement.

Andrew Leung: An organization I’m affiliated with, Public Matters, runs a high school paid summer internship program called “Moving con Safos” where they hire 10 high school interns from the local community and teach them the fundamentals of urban planning. In the internship, these high schoolers become youth transportation advocates for their local communities and ideate and implement their own transportation interventions. It’s a great way to share a really unique opportunity with this age group, and helps them develop necessary communication and leadership skills!

Joshua Funches: I feel like both methods are effective, especially if the school approach is able to be adopted by more than one school in the same town or city. From my experience, the out of school approach reaches more black and brown youth.

Is there a good age group to reach out to first? And what’s the best way to connect with them initially?

Fatima Elkott: The earlier the better! I personally love working with elementary-aged children. Just take the time to connect. Don’t come at any youth with any technical or long presentations/lectures; instead, what are some fun, engaging, and creative ways to connect? There are A LOT of great activities and curriculums out there for engaging with youth.

Andrew Leung: I am a huge advocate of urban planning education for high schoolers – specifically, introducing more BIPOC youth to the field of urban planning. When I was touring colleges, I remember I had such a misconception of urban planning and transportation as only government jobs.  That’s definitely an option, but I’ve found one can work in transportation in a variety of different ways – private consulting firms, nonprofits, etc. To best connect with high schoolers initially, I agree with Joshua’s points (below) – free food, attending in community, and tactile engagement are all major motivators. To the point about tactile engagement, one exercise I’ve found meaningful is having them reflect on the mobility environment of their own neighborhood and brainstorm/write/share in small groups about their “transit journey” in navigating the world. It’s a friendly and approachable way to contextualize them to the field of transportation planning and also personalize the approach.

Joshua Funches: Each age group has value to provide to the value and quality of our transportation, whether they know what transportation equity or justice is or not. One way that has worked for me is asking me to go to an event that 1. enabled me to go with people I know (my friends), 2. involved physical interaction with the topic and 3. great food.

What does a successful pipeline program look like in the transportation industry? What are some qualities/characteristics that you look for in a mentor/mentee relationship?

Fatima Elkott: Communication, transparency, authenticity. Representation is important as well and creating spaces that allow for awkwardness, shyness, and growth. (Making it all fun of course!)

Andrew Leung: To me, a successful pipeline program involves three key factors: clear objectives, structured support, and continuous feedback. I’ve thrived the best in environments where I know exactly what skills/knowledge I’m acquiring, and have a very clear and concise framework laid out for how I’m going to achieve these learnings. At the same time, it’s also important to pass on institutional knowledge, and have experienced mentors who’ve been in the industry who will have your back and really prioritize getting to know you on both a personal and professional level. My most impactful mentorship relationships have been ones where I can bounce my ideas/hopes/doubts off of them, who are intuitive about my interests and are thoughtful about recommending educational resources (books/videos/upskilling courses, etc.) or will refer me to others in their network who they feel might have helpful perspectives. Finally, I feel that in a pipeline program, the continuous feedback element is key because it opens up the possibility for iteration and refinement to best suit the users of the program, and optimize for their unique strengths and abilities.

Joshua Funches: A successful pipeline includes great interest, a direction, and pays well. In reference to interest, a successful pipeline looks like shifting what we are asking young people looking for a career to think about. Instead of asking about buckling up or more restraint, we can create a pipeline for early professionals to use the creativity of technology to save lives for example. How awesome would it be if the result of your work saved lives everyday; one of the things directly connected to a great career in Urban planning.

Shifting the narrative from traffic safety in a victim blaming sense to a holistic sense of youth safety though social support systems is hard. Do you have resources or ideas for shifting the narrative?

Fatima Elkott: Invite us to the table, truly to the table. It’s definitely a challenge, but it is something that we can tackle together. We are co-creating the first ever Youth Planners Conference to hopefully cultivate a space that would be conducive to these conversations and the exploration of these solutions. We are actively looking for partners who would want to be involved and are open to ideas!!

Andrew Leung: To shift the narrative in traffic safety from that of victim blaming to an acknowledgment of holistic youth safety, we need to actively and equitably spotlight youth voices in the conversation. And this needs to not be a tokenized gesture – it’s important to give them an active seat at the table to air their perspective, as they are often the primary users of pedestrian/cycling/rolling forms of mobility that will reap the ramifications of traffic violence. Some of the fundamental concepts I’ve learned that have been useful tools in educating towards this narrative are complete streets, multimodality, and active transportation. 

Approaching mobility justice from a systems thinking framework also has taught me that we refer to traffic accidents as really “collisions.” Vision Zero language and framework are helpful to let youth know that there are active campaigns out there working on prioritizing their safety! Language is so fundamental to social change, I think conducting training/workshops for youth to be advocates in their community and rally against the prevailing victim-blaming narratives is a key meaningful approach!

Joshua Funches: If the young folks you’re connecting with want additional opportunities, I’d recommend the Youth Bike Summit or the Council Chatcasts like I mentioned on the webinar.

If there are folks that are interested in youth-bike programs, I’d recommend the YB Hub.