Recording of the Event: https://youtu.be/GZg9NZZQW74
On October 26, 2022, AYPF hosted a virtual Capitol Hill Forum focused on credible messengers as a youth policy solution. Credible messengers are mentors whose lived experiences serve as a credential in their work to provide guidance, support, and encouragement to young people facing similar challenges.
Targeted at policymakers, practitioners, and youth advocates, the forum provided unique insights into the value of credible messengers for young people marginalized by systemic inequities. The forum included a panel of AYPF’s Youth Policy Consultants and a leading researcher who discussed the value of credible messengers, pulling from their own lived expertise and academic research.
After an introduction from AYPF Executive Director Dr. Stephanie McGencey, AYPF Senior Director of Programs & Strategy Serena Holthe opened the Forum by inviting audience members to consider the value of a mentor who has similar life experiences. She also drew attention to AYPF’s new Credible Messengers Podcast that features expert guests and more extensively explores the topic. Following Serena’s remarks, each of the panelists introduced themselves and began a moderated discussion.
Kenvin is the 7th grade Dean of Students at a restorative justice middle school in Washington, DC. He is also pursuing a political science degree at Trinity Washington University.
Kenvin focused on credible messengers as a mentoring solution. He emphasized that young people need mentors to navigate challenges related to mental and physical health, academics, social wellbeing, and their sense of identity. He noted that young people often feel misunderstood, but credible messengers are inherently trustworthy because of their shared experiences with those that they mentor. Kenvin shared that credible messengers are special because they are “embedded in the lives of young people” and provide consistent support.
As he pointed out, in credible messenger mentoring, there is no power dynamic between the mentor and the mentee. Rather, there is power in a mentor who comes from the same community as a young person they are mentoring. Kenvin specifically shared that his middle school students often come to him as the first line of support because they see him as a member of their community.
Brittany works with several organizations focused on justice reform in the United States, specifically on behalf of children and youth. She is currently pursuing her JD and MPP at the University of Connecticut.
As a panelist, Brittany highlighted how credible messengers can help improve youth mental health. She powerfully stated that credible messengers can build connections with young people that are unlike anything provided by a social worker, therapist, member of school staff, or other standard support. And credible messengers offer a sense of connectedness that helps young people feel seen, heard, and supported without having to explain every detail of their experiences.
Brittany also emphasized the parameters of credible messenger work. She clarified that credible messengers do not have all the answers but are a supplement to the important work of other professionals (therapists, social workers, etc.) who do not have the bandwidth to support all young people who need help. Credible messengers are able to readily build on the implicit trust that comes from being “surrounded by similar realities” and point young people to other vital resources.
She powerfully shared that “we are failing our children if we aren’t taking [credible messengers] into consideration when we’re talking about policy solutions.”
Iliana has been working in youth justice since 2017 and is currently the Policy Director at the Connecticut Justice Alliance.
She introduced the audience to how credible messengers could help address school discipline issues. She stated that credible messengers are a “golden tool” and should be central to the national policy conversation. Iliana spoke of the power of mentors who are “rooted in the community they are serving.” As she described, credible messengers are uniquely familiar with the young people they are mentoring and the challenges that they face, which allows young people to be more comfortable and less fearful of judgement.
Iliana also described the importance of ensuring that credible messengers are well-resourced, paid, trained, and supported in the valuable work that they do. Credible messengers often do the work of social workers, Student Resource Officers, or school counselors, and they are sometimes expected to do so at the risk of their physical safety (such as breaking up a fight). As such, credible messengers deserve resources, training, support, and compensation that reflects their significant role. Specifically, Iliana pointed out that credible messengers should be trained in crisis management so they can provide immediate, hands-on support to young people who are caught in conflict or other kinds of crisis.
Daftne is a student at the University of Central Florida pursuing a degree in social work. As a former foster youth, she has a unique perspective about the value of credible messengers for youth currently in the child welfare system.
Daftne corroborated Iliana’s statements about training credible messengers. She added that credible messengers must be aware of the various needs of the young people and communities they serve. As she pointed out, credible messengers can quickly connect young people with additional resources, such as mental health supports, when the young person’s needs fall outside the scope of their expertise.
She also spoke to the age of credible messengers, noting that credible messengers in their twenties and early thirties are more relatable and more familiar with the circumstances of what young people are going through today. As she noted, credible messengers who are closer in age to the young people they serve may be more cognizant of specific generational issues.
Dr. Bernadette Sánchez is a researcher and professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago with a focus on youth mentoring.
Dr. Sánchez echoed the thoughts of the Youth Policy Consultants, specifically about the importance of finding solutions and support for young people within the community. In some traditional mentoring programs, someone from outside the community often struggles to build trust and credibility because they do not have the advantage of shared experiences or natural connections. When mentors come from a similar background as the young people they are mentoring, developing a trusting relationship is organic. As Dr. Sánchez mentioned, young people can look up to these mentors as a source of hope and validation.
She also emphasized that credible messengers must be well-supported to do their job effectively. She cautioned that credible messenger work is emotionally draining and can be retraumatizing for the mentors, so to avoid burnout, credible messengers need to establish boundaries, have frequent mental and emotional health check-ins, and establish personal support. Quality credible messenger programs include these fundamental supports for the credible messengers to do their crucial work.
Thank you to everyone who joined us for this Capitol Hill Forum! We hope you will stay involved in this issue and use your influence to support credible messengers as a youth policy solution.
We will have a follow-up discussion about the keys to creating a quality credible messenger program, so please stay tuned to our E-Bulletin and social media for announcements!
For more on credible messengers, please check out our:
- Podcast series, “Credible Messengers: Lived Experience Is Expertise,” hosted by AYPF’s very own Youth Policy Consultants
- Related event, “Credible Messengers Small Group Discussion,” January 27, 2022
Support for this effort was provided by the AIR Equity Initiative.