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Helping Young People Find Their Power

How three organizations are removing barriers to learning opportunities and uplifting young people's voices.
June 10, 2024 8 Min Read
Teacher and kids in playground

“The people who are experiencing an injustice should be at the center of creating the solutions for that injustice,” says Twiggy Pucci Garçon, chief strategy officer at True Colors United, a nonprofit organization that implements innovative solutions to youth homelessness that focus on the unique experiences of LGBTQ+ young people.

Garçon was part of a recent project called National Organizations Focused on Marginalized Youth (NOMY), a group of eight organizations that received funding from Wallace. The idea was to help remove the barriers their communities encounter in gaining access to high-quality learning opportunities. It also aimed to ensure that their communities’ perspectives are part of the national policy agenda on equity in youth development. 

“It’s not about working with the average kid,” Polly Singh, Wallace’s senior program officer, youth development says. “It’s about every end of every spectrum.”

We sat down with folks from True Colors United and two of the other NOMY organizations—Beyond Differences and Kids Included Together—to learn about their work and how taking part in this project helped fuel it. You can find the full list of organizations at the end of the piece.

True Colors United: Youth Voice Matters

True Colors United works with youth and young adults who have experienced homelessness, particularly LGBTQ+ youth, youth of color, and other highly impacted groups.

In 2016, the organization created the National Youth Forum on Homelessness (NYFH). Young people, all of whom have experienced homelessness, run and operate every part of the group. Its primary goal is to identify and analyze policy that affects youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness and to advocate for strong policy based upon that analysis. The forum members use personal experience, research, and data to assess the effectiveness of programs and advocate for change.

“Core to who we are has always been our youth engagement,” Jeff Katz, senior director of development at True Colors United says. “In order to solve an issue like youth homelessness, we need youth at the table. We need their lived experience and their lived expertise.”

NYFH meets regularly over Zoom, but True Colors United also saw an opportunity to gather the group in person. As part of its NOMY grant, the organization set out to plan the True Colors United Youth Action Summit–an event held in Washington, D.C., in August 2023 that brought together more than 120 youth leaders from around the country.

“These are young people that are trying to really address the issue of youth homelessness within their own community, and they’re coming together with folks like themselves to learn from one another,” Katz says.

The summit was designed by young people from start to finish, and gleaning ideas from the youth leaders was crucial throughout the process. For example, participants at the summit were asked to write their answer to the prompt “what does homelessness look like to you?” on a sticky note, which was then made into a mural.

“The mural shows joy and commitment and the perseverance to push through and change systems,” Katz says. “This is now informing a lot of our programming for 2024 and 2025. The themes on the mural represent the work of True Colors for years to come.” 

But the project wasn’t without its challenges. Bringing together more than 120 young people from different communities—many of whom had never been on a plane before—was no small task. Katz and Garçon say they learned a lot from this experience, one thing being that you should have a crisis management plan in place in case of emergencies. For example, the True Colors staff dealt with a COVID-19 scare and had to scramble for test kits last-minute. 


I think True Colors is unique in that we get to be pretty flexible and most importantly responsive. We get to be responsive to the young people, and we get to be responsive to the movement.

One way they did plan ahead, though, was by thinking about how triggering the work could be for some of the young people. The staff designed a designated safe space—called “chill space”—where young people could go to disconnect and unplug should they feel triggered. The chill space included art and a hired licensed therapist on site. 

True Colors United is looking forward to taking this and other lessons learned on the road as they embark on a national tour. The organization is inviting young people to sessions around the country to get a better understanding of what’s going on in their communities. True Colors has also expanded, creating an international component to its work.

“I think True Colors is unique in that we get to be pretty flexible and most importantly responsive,” Katz says. “We get to be responsive to the young people, and we get to be responsive to the movement.”

Beyond Differences: Creating Cultures of Belonging

Beyond Differences, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce social isolation and loneliness among teens, takes a similar approach in putting young people at the center of its work. The organization offers comprehensive leadership programming for youth in both middle and high school. 

“We coined the term social isolation,” the organization’s director of youth programs, Sally Matsuishi, says. “There is this huge demand for programming and curriculum to help connect young people again [after the pandemic]. To help young people to be able to find their place and belonging within their schools.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, from March to October 2020, the proportion of mental health–related hospital visits increased by 24 percent among U.S. children aged 5–11 years and 31 percent among adolescents aged 12–17 years, compared with the same period in 2019. Additionally, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital national poll found that 46 percent of parents noticed worsening mental health in their child during the pandemic. 

These statistics point to a continuing need for services and experiences that help young people connect to one another.

Beyond Differences’ National Teen Board draws 50 high school–age students from across the nation to work together to help build curriculum and give voice to the fight to end social isolation. The program culminates each year in the Activist Academy, a four-day comprehensive leadership retreat that brings together the National Teen Board to share their stories, sharpen their skills, interact with speakers, and bond with fellow activists. With NOMY funding, the organization had a goal of planning and running two activist academies—one in 2023 and the second in 2024. 


In these spaces that NOMY helped create, they have the ability to speak freely, to feel safe, and most importantly, to do the work, create the lessons, make the discussion questions, and to find ways to engage and connect people authentically

At the 2023 Activist Academy, the students of the National Teen Board identified six focus areas for curricula that would be released throughout the year. The six focus areas are: Poverty Visibility, Centering Immigrant/Refugee Voices, Body Positivity, Stand up for Asian & Pacific American Islander Youth, Disability Visibility, and Queer Visibility. 

“They are creating belonging and connection,” Matsuishi says. “They're taking it from their own experiences. They're using their authentic voices and more than anything, they're really excited about it.”

The curricula and lessons created by these teens reach about five million children across 10,000 schools in the country—65 percent of which are Title I schools. Matsuishi attributes this reach to the fact that the curricula are community-based, written for and by youth, deeply personal, and responsive in real time. 

“The beauty of Beyond Differences is that it originated from youth voices,” Matsuishi says. “If you have the people who are writing your curriculum represent the people who are engaging your curriculum, then you are on the right path. We’re unique in that everything we make comes from young people. That is really appealing, and it works really well.”

Through the organization’s “Activist Accelerators,” which are full-day lessons in middle schools, Beyond Differences is also able to engage directly with vulnerable middle school students, who are often surprised that teens they see in the videos are real people and not actors. Matsuishi says that helps the lessons resonate with the middle schoolers who have gone through similar life experiences as themselves.

Beyond Differences has high hopes to reach even more young people and keep up with the high demand for their programs. They are currently gearing up for their next Activist Academy in June 2024 in Atlanta, where teens will determine this year’s focus areas and lay the foundation for curriculum and ideas that will be released nationally throughout the year. 

“I believe that the magic happens not when we just work locally, but when we get a national voice because that's how we can uplift voices that are being silenced,” Matsuishi says. “There's nothing more powerful than seeing a young person who's just starting to find their voice and is discovering the power they never thought they had.” 

Kids Included Together: Supporting the OST Workforce

Kids Included Together (KIT) recognizes the adults in the system, focusing on challenges such as staffing, retention, mental well-being, stress, and more. The organization used its NOMY funding to concentrate on its KIT Just-in-Time Support project, which aims to create learning opportunities and support for the OST workforce through high-quality trainings on disability inclusion and behavior support. 

After synthesizing data from its 2023 bi-annual “Assessment of Training Needs” survey, KIT staff focused on three key findings to help shape their goals for the project:

  1. Children’s needs are increasing;
  2. Provider well-being is at risk, affecting their ability to help serve the children;
  3. KIT’s products and services could help decrease provider stress and increase their competence and confidence. 

I wanted to move away from abstract strategies and focus on practical methods that can be easily implemented in daily work, Brooke Matthews, KIT’s curriculum development specialist 

“Knowing this information made us realize that providers had less time and capacity to dedicate to our professional development learning opportunities around disability inclusion and behavior support services,” Tammy Bailey, the organization’s chief executive officer and chief content officer says. “We also knew from our internal data that although we were providing strategies and tools to the providers to address the increasing needs of the children in their programs, we found that they were unable to actually apply those strategies and tools due to the stresses of the childcare and afterschool crisis.”

KIT’s solution was two-fold, with the goal of making their trainings as easy to access as possible. First the team created four microlearning series, each with three videos and additional resources. Then they enhanced the “KIT Academy” services and products.

“I wanted to move away from abstract strategies and focus on practical methods that can be easily implemented in daily work,” Brooke Matthews, KIT’s curriculum development specialist says. “As a previous afterschool care worker, I remember how empowering it was to feel like I knew how to actually put something into practice. So, essentially, my goal was to make the content and concepts mentioned ready to apply.”

The organization has released two of the four series so far, with plans to launch the other two later this year. The first, called Viewing Behavior as Communication, covers effective ways to understand and respond to children’s behavior and provides a comprehensive guide to fostering positive behavior support practices. It includes three videos as well as other handouts, such as tip sheets providers can have at their fingertips when they need them. The other three modules focus on culturally responsive behavior support practices, relationship-based behavior support, and de-escalating unsafe behavior. 

All of the trainings are available on KIT Academy, an online learning management system for OST providers. As part of its NOMY project, KIT developed and launched new enhancements and services to create more user-friendly, easily accessible environment—including a chat bot that provides 24/7 support, quick tips on common topics and scenarios, and a course recommender that guides learners to new courses base on those they’ve already completed. 

As technology advances at a rapid pace, KIT staff has had to adapt and refine their content. They are thinking about how they might begin to incorporate more AI and animation into their resources to enhance the online experience for their users. They are also shifting their business model from training to coaching. 

“Giving someone a training isn’t enough,” Bailey says. “We need to be by their side showing them how to implement the tools we have created over the last 25 years and helping put them into action so that they can make sure that all children are thriving and reaching their full potential.”

Bailey says she expects the nation’s childcare crises to continue with children’s needs increasing and provider well-being continuing to be at risk. But she is looking forward to promoting KIT’s services to a wider audience through their new model, tools, and a redesigned website.

“Creating confident, less-stressed OST professionals is so critical because without those professionals, we don’t have anyone taking care of our children and our future,” she says. “It’s important to take care of the provider so they can take care of our children.”

The full list of organizations who participated in NOMY include Beyond Differences, Coalition for Community Schools, Kids Included Together (KIT), National Indian Education Association, National Urban League, UnidosUS, OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates, and True Colors United.

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