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Supporting Youth Leadership in Community Organizing: An Interview with Meyiya Coleman

September 12, 2023

By Corin Bauman, Program Coordinator, Vital Village Networks

Contributions by Ronda Alexander, Director of National Partnerships, Vital Village Networks

Meyiya Coleman, a Chicago native, grew up in the North Lawndale community and began her activism at the young age of 8-years-old. She credits her family, specifically her grandmother for bringing her into this work. “I come from a family of organizers and activists…We actually had suffered a tremendous loss in our family. One of my cousins was actually murdered in a gas station, near our family building…So I started this work at 8 doing gun violence prevention.” Meyiya continued her journey in community organizing in high school including doing advocacy work for police accountability and stopping mortgage scams targeting elderly community members. Since then Meyiya has been a leader, mentor and advocate for young people to organize and lead change in their communities. Among other roles, she currently serves as the Healing Through Justice Trainer with Communities United.

At Communities United, Meyiya started with their education focused advocacy, including the first bill she worked on, HB4208. Working on this policy change, which sought to get more counselors back into the schools and reallocate police funding into mental and behavioral health resources, reinforced her motivation to mentor young people in organizing for change. While the bill changed significantly through meetings in Springfield, IL and the legislative process, Meyiya reflected that, “Going to Springfield had allowed me to see that I too as a young Black woman, in Chicago have a voice and it's very important to let my voice be heard…It allowed me to work with young people and get them to realize the same thing.” Since then, Meyiya has shifted her work toward racial equity and what that looks like for communities, young people and their families in Chicago.

As the Healing Through Justice Trainer, Meyiya is supporting the work of Communities United in their “Healing Through Justice: A Community-led Breakthrough Strategy for Healing Centered Communities”, which looks to transform mental health for youth of color. This work was a recent awardee of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s $80 Million Racial Equity 2030 Challenge, and is a partnership between Communities United and the Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. One of the aspects that Meyiya highlighted about this program, which she was excited to share, was the ability to hire 25 young people who are interested in being organizers to engage in this work. As a youth organizer, she sees this as critical to both supporting the young people in their learning, development and leadership, and the ability to compensate them for their time. “A lot of them have been really interested in becoming organizers and we want to make sure that they are able to do so but they're able to also get compensated.” When reflecting on collaborative leadership through this partnership between Communities United and Lurie Children’s Hospital, Meyiya shared that what makes the collaborative successful is sharing resources, elevating one another’s expertise, and ensuring communities tell their own narratives.

Through her own journey with organizing and activism, Meyiya saw the potential for supporting new generations of young people to lead in the community, and this opportunity for mentorship became the primary motivation for her continued work with youth organizing. “What most motivates me is knowing that there is a big world out there full of young people who don't feel like they have a voice, and I know that I can continue to provide space for young people to feel like they have a voice and feel like they're not alone… I love providing that safe space, a space for us to all feel like we're empowered by each other, and give that community feel to the work.” Meyiya reflected a personal understanding of the feelings of discouragement that young people may experience and not seeing the change they want to see happen, sharing how her own journey was not linear, and that she ultimately returned to organizing because she realized, “it's not going to change if you're not the one who's out here fighting for it to change.” This same spirit of understanding her own role in her community is what she hopes to teach and inspire young people to understand in themselves.

Meyiya’s shared her commitment to intergenerational leadership in organizing, and specifically supporting young people’s involvement in community-led change. She expressed how critical it is to have multiple perspectives and insights when working for change, and reflected on how much value young people bring to the work. “We need young people at the forefront, because they are up next,” Meyiya shared, and went on to emphasize how important it is to build sustainability and legacy in organizing through intergenerational work.

When asked what advice she has for others interested in community organizing she said, “This is not one person’s job, this requires a community of people. It’s ok if it starts off as one person because you can continue to build community.” The relationships she has built through her work, and the feeling of family that has emerged in these collaborative spaces, continues to bring Meyiya joy and fuels her commitment to doing this work. She also encourages people to persist in their work and says “if you’re not invited to the table, make yourself a table, because you deserve to be heard, you deserve to be in leadership.”

Meyiya is excited to continue doing her work with the Racial Equity 2030, is looking forward to bringing the Healing through Justice model into schools again this fall and she also hopes to attend more conferences to share the model with other communities and organizations. When asked about the future, she shared her passion for acting and the arts, and hopes one day to integrate the arts with community advocacy, and support young people using their creative talents to make change. She is a champion for all young people interested in being part of community-led change, and shared “There’s going to be a time I will no longer be doing this work, and it is not going to be a sad thing because I realize I have done the work to make sure that young people know that they have that voice…I am super comfortable with knowing that young people are now in that place of leadership that I once was in. When I am done doing this work, I am going to be fulfilled.”

If you are interested connecting with Meyiya, you can follow her here:

More about Meyiya Coleman

Meyiya Coleman is a proud young Black woman born and raised in North Lawndale, a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. In 2016, Meyiya joined Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a youth-led alliance organizing for education and racial justice, and working to end the school to prison pipeline in Chicago and across the state of Illinois.

Meyiya has been an active leader in VOYCE’s efforts to push Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to end their contract with the Chicago Police Department and instead to reinvest those funds into mental and behavioral health and other supports for students through the creation of Health Equity Action Response Teams (HEARTs). Meyiya also helped to create and launch VOYCE’s state level Rethinking Safety Campaign, focusing on creating healthier and safer learning environments across Illinois.

Meyiya now serves a youth development coordinator with VOYCE’s working on knowledge and equity project, a liberatory education approach that centers school curriculum around students’ lived experience and communities, and taking action to impact systemic change. VOYCE has received an inaugural Obama Foundation/Chicago Public Schools Civic Recognition award in 2019 for their work to create healing centered schools.

Meyiya comes from a long line of community organizers starting with her grandmother, Gloria who introduced her to the field at the age of nine when her cousin fell victim to gun violence. Since then, Meyiya has worked on issues like affordable housing, violence prevention, and increasing investment in mental and behavioral health in schools.

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