It All Comes Full Circle: When Alumni Stay

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Long nights spent tirelessly working on campaigns. Being a part of a tight-knit team. Sharing the joys of victory. Who would ever want that to end?

When they age out of high school programs, some youth organizers pursue new endeavors, like DeAndrea from Youth Empowered Solutions who started her own nonprofit. Others return to the organization that played a formative role in shaping their lives, but in a different capacity.

At the organizations we visited, alumni frequently serve as resources to current program participants. They act as chaperones on college visits or other trips, develop programming, and serve as a mentors or consultants. And it makes sense, because…

  • Common ground is a major jumpstart. It’s usually easier for current program participants to build on shared experiences working alongside recent program alum than it is to build connections with unfamiliar mentors.

  • Continuity counts for a lot. Even where relationships aren’t pre-existing, alumni set the example of what it means to be “movement minded” and function as experienced, empathetic resources to help current high school organizers grow and build on previous work.

  • The alum perspective is invaluable.  Graduates of the program have had time to reflect on their experiences, which often span several years, and those perspectives are essential in adapting program designs and strategies.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that.  Alumni who return as support staff inevitably struggle with unforeseen challenges, too.  

Imani, former program participant at Urban Underground in Milwaukee, Wisc. turned staff member, talks about the dynamics with current program participants.

When barely removed from the program in which they have invested so much of their time and energy, alumni grapple with a changing role. Speaking from experience, I know that when I’ve dedicated so much time and energy to a project over years, letting others who are newer and less experienced lead can seem unfathomable.

Ayo, a former Boston Student Advisory Council member, describes what it’s like watching and supporting current BSAC youth.

Alumni have the ability to support the work of the young people that have filled their shoes. And they also have the ability to strengthen and transform the organization.

Katurah, a former program participant and current staff member at I Have A Future in Boston, Mass., talks about how her role has changed in the program and why she stays.

It comes full circle. The organization shapes the young person. Then the young person shapes the organization.

by Becca Folkes-Lallo