Setting Youth Up for Success

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Walking in Authority Teen Council teaches Clayton County’s youth leadership, civic engagement, networking, and much more.

Walking in Authority Teen Council teaches Clayton County’s youth leadership, civic engagement, networking and much more.

When Aneesa Najeeullah showed up for work her first day as a student intern in the Walking in Authority Teen Council office, she was wearing the typical teen uniform of a hoodie and jeans. She was told that the next time she returned to work, she would need to be dressed in “office attire.”

That directive came from Sparkle Adams, the Founder and Executive Director of Walking in Authority Teen Council (WIATC), an organization she started in Forest Park in 2013 with a mission of empowering teens ages 13-19 to advocate for themselves, develop leadership skills and become agents of change in their communities. Learning how to dress appropriately is part of that.

The high school senior took that advice to heart. “I went home after work that day and researched just what acceptable office attire was,” recalls Najeeullah, who bought herself a suit and since then, has slowly built up an alternative wardrobe. “Even when I attend WIA meetings, I make sure I have on a pressed blouse and nice pants. Miss Adams has taught us that appearance is a big part of first impressions and professionalism.”

This is just one of the many lessons Adams wants to impart on the WIATC members.

“If they know better, they do better,” says Adams, “and if we don’t expose them to as many opportunities as possible, how will they learn?”

Walking in Authority Teen Council members at the 6th Annual Youth Legal and Law Enforcement Symposium in 2018 with then U.S. with then U.S. Attorney B.J. Pak.

Combining Civic Engagement with Life Skills

The organization originated as the Forest Park Teen Council, which Adams, then serving as Forest Park Mayor Pro Tem, created in 2009 to help teens understand how local government works. Members of the Teen Council took positions of city council member, mayor, city manager and other positions. She had 47 teens enroll in the first session.

In 2013, after serving as interim mayor, she left Forest Park government, but wanted to keep the Teen Council together in some form.

“We had a lot of success from 2009 to 2013,” says Adams, “and I didn’t want to just drop it. But I did want to change the focus.”

Adams named the new organization Walking in Authority Teen Council, registered it as a nonprofit, and changed the programming to not only teach teens about government and civic engagement, but also emphasize life skills that they need to be successful. She has based her program on a L.E.A.R.N. (Leadership, Empowerment, Accountability, Responsibility, and Networking) model to engage and educate the WIATC members. To learn about civic engagement and government operations, they attend city council, county commission and school board meetings. They serve on the city’s boards to give their opinions and suggestions on comprehensive planning. She also teaches them financial literacy, workforce development and job search skills. Along the way, they also learn how to open a checking account, ride public transportation, dress appropriately for job interviews and address people properly.

Members of Walking in Authority Teen Council participated in the Tuskegee Airmen’s Aviation Summer Training Program in June 2021.

“This program exposes teens to what I like to call ‘mindful leadership,’” says Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler, who is a big supporter of the program. “It teaches them discipline, civic engagement and how to advocate for themselves. It’s grooming the next generation of leaders.”

The program is funded by individual donors, the Clayton County Commissioner’s Block Grant and other sources. The staff consists of all volunteers and Adams herself does not take a salary.

Adams is constantly finding opportunities for the members to learn and grow, so the program doesn’t always look the same year to year. For example, one year the teens worked on the community garden and learned about healthy eating and sustainable initiatives. They made a presentation to the school system’s nutrition board, which led to the schools’ breakfast and lunch menus being changed. In another project, they put on a fashion show with clothes made out of recyclable materials to promote curbside recycling. Through field trips, she exposes them to career options, civic opportunities and general learning experiences. They have also attended National League of Cities (NLC) conferences.

“Teens learn to get outside of their comfort zone,” observes Mayor Butler. “This is truly preparing them for real world experience. They learn to work together despite having different opinions. That is a valuable skill to have. We want people to step up and lead, but we don’t always teach them leadership skills.”

Najeeullah, who will attend Tuskegee University in the fall, agrees. “I didn’t know how much of a leader I could be,” she says, “because I didn’t have the opportunities she’s given us. I enjoy leading and organizing and I’ve proven to myself I can do it.”

Chanel Dang is a rising junior at Forest Park High school who joined WIATC last fall during her sophomore year. She leads the group’s social media efforts, keeping members up to date on what is happening and posting photos from various activities.

“I was interested in getting involved in an organization that was outside of school,” Dang says. “I have learned so much in a year – about different careers, networking and all the opportunities that are out there that school doesn’t show you. I have enjoyed the guest speakers and especially attending the NLC conference. Miss Adams has exposed us to so much.”

Building on Success

Students come from all seven cities in Clayton County, and sometimes beyond. There is an application process, but Adams admits she doesn’t turn any student away. However, she upholds strict standards: Good grades, regular attendance at meetings and activities and respectful behavior are all expected. If those expectations are not met, students are asked to leave.

Though the Teen Council started out as a large group, Adams has about 17 members now and thinks that is a good number. Since 2009, 547 teens have come through the Teen Councils.

Adams would like to see this in other cities around Georgia as well as other states, and she is currently working on that goal. She would also like it grow beyond the United States and involve youth from other countries to build up their communities. Whatever the plan, she will keep on going.

“I’ve never been one to sit around and watch things happen,” Adams says. “If I can help affect change in a positive manner, I will. I am building a legacy of long-life learners. If the members say ‘Miss Adams taught me that,’ then I consider that a success.”

Read part nine of this 12-part series, “It’s Not Easy Being Young.”

Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.

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