youth in discussion

The Youth Leadership and Advisory Network (YLAN) started in 2014 with a call to action from Dr. Philip Leaf, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health, to impact a wider net of young people in Baltimore City.

For 22 years prior to YLAN, the Center for Adolescent Health had a Youth Advisory Committee that met weekly—teaching youth about research practices, protocols, and how data is translated into youth programs and services.

CAH’s community relations director Katrina Brooks explained, “Over that period of time, we were able to impact their lives personally because [members] had another level of support beyond family and community. They had folks that could help them with personal goal setting, resources, and supports for academics, and referrals to services needed to improve their health and wellness.”

The Center was unable to offer that level of support to every adolescent in Baltimore City, but staff realized they could bring together youth and youth-serving organizations and provide professional development, technical support, and access to funding resources.

And so, the Youth Leadership and Advisory Network was born.

YLAN was designed to connect youth leaders throughout Baltimore City and help leverage resources to empower their voice in the decision-making processes that impact their wellbeing. There are more than 45 organizations affiliated with YLAN. The Network also collaborates with the Mayor’s Youth Commission, which is a body of youth that represents Baltimore’s 14 city council districts.

YLAN gives youth leaders the opportunity to discuss complex issues and brainstorm solutions in their own way, said Rashad Staton, a program assistant at Family League of Baltimore.

Representatives from youth-serving organizations and agencies send representatives, largely youth themselves, to share updates and connect.  The general meetings give a time for members to learn about initiatives and programming all over the city. Brooks serves as an administrator and adult ally to the youth representatives of YLAN.

“It allows a space of young people to learn early to not fall victim to working in silos, but to work collaboratively. It's a shared space of young people learning what other young people are doing,” Staton said. By attending YLAN general meetings, young people can understand what resources are out there and make partnerships with other organizations.

The members of YLAN build from the general meetings to collaboration between the councils or organizations they work for. “You can start seeing these conversations actually start and are ignited in these meetings. The next thing you know, they’re on a panel or they're doing a collaborative event together,” Staton said.

In the upcoming months, YLAN members are collaborating with Rebkha Atnafou, executive director of The After-School Institute, and the Baltimore City Health Department to plan the annual Youth Sexual Health and Leadership Conference, which will be held at UA House on Saturday, December 2. The conference will feature workshops, seminars, and discussions about sexual health, but with an emphasis on holistic wellness and physical activity. Students will have the option of attending a Zumba class, play basketball, or chill out in a trap yoga class in between going to workshops.

“Our partners at UChoose from the Baltimore City Health Department will be leading the sexual health focus at the resource fair and workshops that they provide around healthy relationships and healthy sexual activity,” Brooks said. Following the daytime programming, the conference will end with an evening concert.

“I think this conference will be a model of how it should be done. When you're engaging youth about an issue that can be very, very, very hard to even break through with, but [the conference] allows them to speak up for themselves and give them a voice and platform,” Staton said.

Although she prefers to work behind the scenes, Brooks’ hard work does not go unnoticed. She was recently honored with a Guiding Light Award for her efforts by Empowering Minds of Maryland’s Youth, a nonprofit that establishes youth outreach programs. 

By: Lauren Burns