“Posture of Contemplation” by Danto Arthur.

Issues such as racism, homophobia and classism aren’t topics we typically include in our conversations with others.

But the youth leaders at the Seattle Young People’s Project (SYPP) come face-to-face with these issues and aren’t afraid to do something about it.

“I feel like I’ve experienced every kind of discrimination,” said Uuganbayar Yuki

Lkahagvasuren. “And I would just put up with it because I thought it was a part of life and was something I just had to deal with.”

Like many other youth leaders, the 18 year-old found out about SYPP through friends who had been involved with the program. She said it showed her she could change what was happening to her and others.

“I realized I didn’t deserve to be treated badly, and SYPP showed me I could do

something about it and let people know that no one deserves to be treated unfairly,” Lkahagvasuren said. “I felt relieved, but at the same time, I knew I had to do

something because I could.”

Lkahagvasuren started a program called Project of Smile.

“It’s going to be like the ‘Free Hugs’ campaign,” Lkahagvasuren said. “[The campaign] showed how doing a little thing could make someone’s day and empower them to do the same to others.”

Lkahagvasuren’s project will reach out to Native American communities first. She recently received a grant that will allow her to send out buttons and information about the benefits of smiling and staying positive.

These are the kinds of programs SYPP fosters. The organization is youth-led, meaning projects are envisioned, planned and executed by youth, although adult advisors are present. They drive the conversations that happen at SYPP and work together to make

things happen.

“SYPP used to be a social service for homeless youth,” said Sunny Kim, the new co-director at SYPP. “Now it works on social justice and youth empowerment with a focus on being youth-led and challenging adultism.”

If you’re wondering what adultism is, consider this: How often do we value youth opinions toward issues that affect the community? How hard are we working toward getting youth engaged in public policy-making?

Elements of adultism are everywhere, Kim said. And at SYPP, youth leaders address the root causes of the problem. They don’t just deal with the symptoms.

While anyone is welcome at SYPP, Kim said, many youth leaders come from marginal backgrounds, low-income and refugee families. Some are gay or lesbian while others are people of color.

They often face discrimination and endured the pain until, they say, SYPP came into their lives.

“Sometimes, all it takes is to plant the idea that you could challenge a message,” Kim said. “I’ve seen young people completely transform from the moment they walk in here to when they take off into the world.”

“People would come in after school so fired up,” Kim said. “They’d say things like, ‘I can’t believe I’ve never noticed this. This is bulls**t.’ Or, ‘I don’t deserve to be treated this way.’”

According to the SYPP website, more than 2,000 youth leaders have made their way through the Project.

Kim described a number of youth who came to SYPP, burdened by their poor treatment.

Many were quiet and shy, with little opinion to offer. They had been told to stay quiet and put up with life. What they learn about discrimination and getting empowered encourages them to take a good look at the world and question it like they never have.

The Seattle Young People’s Project is located at 2820 East Cherry Street, Seattle, Wash., 98122. (206) 860-9606. www.sypp.org.

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