Youth Leadership Support Network


A Spotlight on Parades and Leadership Mentoring
By Jason McGahan, January 2002

I met Douglas Calvin two years ago. I had been living in D.C. one year and volunteering with a homeless shelter, a parks preservation group, and writing news articles for the D.C. Independent Media Center. Our meeting was serendipitous because I was beginning to doubt the effectiveness of my work, and to dismay at how my good intentions were being soured by inflexible bureaucracies. Doug’s ideas reinvigorated my dreams, which are like the pilot light for community activists like me. Since then I have been working with the YLSN to empower local kids the way Doug empowered me.

The District of Columbia has a horde of social problems borne out of poverty, but the one that Doug considers the most threatening is its young people’s loss of hope. Previous generations, despite being confronted with similar conditions, were blessed with public programs that empowered them to become musicians, painters and writers. A local arts scene replete with poetry, jazz and citywide mural arts flourished. But most of these programs predictably fell victim to a school system fighting for its day-to-day survival and as a result we see a generation raised without a means to express themselves.

Imagine the looks on children’s faces when the Youth Leadership Support Network organizes a parade through their neighborhood. These “Promote the Peace…Participate” parades feature giant puppets, mural-sized banners, New Orleans-styled brass marching ensembles and colorful costume after costume passing down streets that in hundreds of years had never been the site of a parade. This was how Doug introduced our organization to the kids of D.C. I have watched kids pour out of their houses and join our parades, and linger around afterwards to ask some of our musicians (who are mostly youth and elders in the local music scenes but have included international guests) to teach them an instrument. Thus was born our weekly drum workshops for kids in that particular neighborhood.

The neighborhood kids are involved in preparations before our band strikes its first note. Volunteer teams do door-to-door outreach with art-filled announcements. In art workshops facilitated by professional artist-volunteers, the children are taught how to build puppets and draw and paint banners. We take the kids on park clean-ups to prepare for the after-parade - a musical jam session and talent-sharing where we drive home how important public parks are to a neighborhood. This summer our professional journalist-volunteers are starting media workshops where they’ll empower youth to become neighborhood news sources through media projects such as starting newspapers, web-development, video, oral histories and more. Doug is often heard saying, “why watch the news when you can be the news.” For a youth population that is acutely aware of what images of youth, if any at all, appear on the news, this idea resonates immediately.

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